Friday, June 14, 2013

Bulking Done Right: What Can the Latest 100 Day +1,000 Kcal/day Overfeeding Study Tell Us About How Baseline Fitness, Fatness, Hormones & More Affect the Outcome

Bulking!? What is it that will keep the veins popping, the waist circumference level and your muscle growing? It is your basal metabolic rate? Your body fat level? Your muscle mass? Your fiber type composition? Or maybe your cardio-respiratory fitness?
If you have listened to the latest installment of the Science Round Up you will know that there is very practical reason why you want to avoid "classic dirty bulking", with an increased formation of body fat: the accompanying changes to the structure of your adipose organ - the increase in adipopocyte number and thus the touted reason for the future weight problems (listen to the show to learn more). But let's phase it a certain degree of "overfeeding" is actually necessary to make gains, so the question, which factors there are to predict the changes in body composition and body energy in response to chronic overfeeding is a question that's of equal importance for the lean physical culturist as it is for the obese child of the fast food generation. And you know what? This is exactly the question a soon-to-be-published paper by scientist from the Pennington Biomedical Research Center and the Laval University is dealing with.

Twin power vs. heterogenity

As Bouchard, Tchernof and Tremblay rightly point out, "human heterogeneity in the response to the much described “obesogenic environment” created by affluent societies represents a critical aspect of the obesity epidemic" (Bouchard. 2013) And while this is certainly right it is, from a scientist's perspective, a huge problem. After all, we want to study the influence of a given parameter in isolation.

Twin studies can provide us with pairs of subjects where these inter-individual differences are minimized and while the focus of previous observational studies has been on the hitherto more or less fruitless and above all practically 100% irrelevant (what does it help you to know that you are "at risk" of getting obese) identification of genotype-overfeeding interaction, Bouchard et al. are
"[...]taking advantage of the extensive panel of pre-overfeeding traits to investigate the most parsimonious predictors of the gains in body mass, FM, FFM, and total body energy (BE), with a particular focus on the partitioning of the energy gains between adipose and lean tissues." (Bouchard. 2013)
The goal is to identify biomarkers of body composition changes in response to chronic overfeeding may allow us to develop new hypotheses about the endogenous (genetic) and environmental causes of human heterogeneity in the response to chronic overfeeding.
Figure 1: Factors that predispose to weight & fat gain on a caloric surplus (adapted from Bouchard. 2013)

In a previously published paper, the researchers have already reported that their subjects, 24 young lean men (12 pairs of identical twins) exhibited individual differences in body weight and composition gains in response to a standardized 353 MJ (84 000 kcal) overfeeding protocol over 100 days
"The mean (+SD) gains in fat mass (FM) and fat-free mass (FFM) were 5.4+1.9 kg and 2.7+1.5 kg for a total body energy (BE) gain of 221+75 MJ representing 63% of the energy surplus consumed." (Buchard. 2013)
In this follow up publication, Buchard et al. were now taking a closer look at the most important baseline correlates of these overfeeding-induced changes with the aim of identifying biomarkers of the response.
"From 16 to 8% body fat" a cross-fitesque training-style may be right for those with high baseline fitness (learn more).
"The subjects were studied eight at a time (four pairs of twins) over a period of 18 months. Subjects were housed in a closed section of a dormitory on the campus of Laval University 24-hour supervision.

Each subject stayed in the unit for 120 days, which included a 14-day baseline observation period, a 3-day pre-overfeeding testing period, a 100-day experimental overfeeding treatment, and a 3-day post-overfeeding testing period." (Buchard. 2013)
Unfortunately, the subjects daily energy expenditure was highly limited, as they were "kept sedentary" except for a supervised 30min walk, over the whole study period, in the course of which their body weight was measured daily, while their body density was assessed on three occasions from a series of underwater weighing tests.

An "intermittent overfeed" protocol

The actual overfeeding protocol comprised a 6-day binge with 1,000 extra kcal per day that was followed by a backlash to the calculated maintenance level on day 7. Thus, subjects overfed during 84 of the 100 day experimental phase.
  • the total excess energy intake was 84 000 kcal
  • the macronutrient ratio as 15/35/50% for protein, fat and carbs
With the latter certainly not being representative of your diet (at least I would hope so), this is sign #2 (remember: the first part was the non-existent physical activity) that we are dealing with a study targeting the average American and not the extra-ordinary SuppVersity reader and Super Human Radio listener who are spread all across the globe.

Suggested Read: "If You Go 'High Carb', You Better Go Really High! Seven Meals/Day, More than 800g of Carbs, Less Than 50g of Fat & 1000kcal Over Maintenance and Still 'Lean Gains'!" A previous study would suggests: The major downside to the diet the twins were following was the low protein and not the high carbohydrate intake, of which I am sure some of you are now freakin' out in the usual, "But Gary told us that carbs make you fat"-mania
So, while it is obvious that a study on the same subjects, but with different macronutrient ratios (like a lower vs. higher carb intake) and/or an additional exercise component would have told us more about how you can channel your gains into the right direction, I would say that there is more than enough evidence of the superiority of
  • a higher protein intake (30g+ of a high EAA protein source w/ every full meal, 15-20g of protein with snacks),
  • the usefulness of a sane carbohydrate intake (low GL instead of low carb),
  • the avoidance of a skewed n6-PUFA to other dietary fat intake, and 
  • an intense, but not overexerting workout routine with a focus on heavy compound lifts, a minimal amount of HIIT and the occasional very low intensity (walking on a treadmill steady state cardio)
when you are about to go on a lean bulk (you overall energy surplus should not exceed 15% in the beginning; and you should go higher only, if this does not bring about any changes).

Now, talking about the study would be pointless, if the only thing to take away from the experiment were recommendations based on papers that were discussed in previous blogposts, right? So what are the new insights this study brings to the table, then?
  • Total, not relative, increases in calorie intakes matter: First of all, it is kind of surprising that the changes in body composition did not depend on the pre-overfeeding levels of body weight, FM, BE, and daily caloric intake. In other words, for these lean healthy men, the changes the scientists observed were almost fully determined by the absolute increase in energy consumption - irrespective of how lean they were and even more surprisingly irrespective of whether those 1,000kcal extra were a surplus of 30% or 40% of their baseline energy intakes.
  • Muscle has a "repartitioning effect": Contrary to the fat mass, which did not correlate with changes in any of the measured parameters, the scientists observed a statistically significant inverse correlation between the amount of muscle, the subjects were carrying on their frames and the changes in the lean-to-fat mass ratio (r=-0.41; p=0.05) - this means: the more muscle the guys had to begin with the more muscle and less fat they were gaining in response to the 1,000 extra kcal they were consuming.
  • RMR and food induced thermic effects don't influence the total gains, but... While neither the resting metabolic rate, nor the thermic effect of food influenced the changes in body weight, FM, FFM, or BE, the thermic effects in the 4h after a meal had a significant and highly beneficial effect on the ratio of muscle to fat, the subjects gained (clear-cut evidence in favor of a high(er) protein diet yielding better results).
  • Learn about the fallacies of the training in the "fat burning" zone and why burning fat for fuel does not equate fat loss (read more)
    The respiratory quotient (RQ) did not matter: As a SuppVersity reader you know that the influence of the ratio of carbohydrates to fats, described by the RQ (with an RQ = 1 telling you that someone burns exclusively glucose) on your efforts to cut body fat, is totally overblown. The finding that
    "[t]here was no correlation between RQ during the RMR measurement and at various time points of the TEM test with the overfeeding-induced gains in body weight, FM, FFM, or BE." (Bouchard. 2013)
    is perfect evidence that this is also, or I guess I'd better say, "even more so" the case when you are bulking.
  • Fitness is a negative predictor of fat gains: In view of the fact that a high VO2max correlates with higher mitochondrial capacities (and often higher muscle mass) it is not surprising that "VO2max per kilogram of body weight was negatively correlated with the gains in body weight,
    FM, and BE, with coefficients ranging from -0.41 to -0.49, all p<0.05" (Bouchard. 2013); and that the overfeeding-induced increases in fat mass relate to those in lean mass were negatively related to baseline VO2max per kilogram of body weight and the maximum O2pulse (r=-0.43; p<0.05)
  • A high(er) count of type I fiber count protects against fat gains: In line with the previously mentioned negative correlation between fitness (endurance type) and fat gains, there was a strong trend for the proportion of type I fibers in the vastus lateralis muscle to correlate negatively with (r = -0.40) with fat gains. Accordingly, the oxidative potential of the skeletal muscle, the scientists quantified by assessing the maximal activity of OGDH (Alpha-ketoglutarate dehydrogenase is an enzyme that's involved in the oxidative process by which the citric acid cycle converts fats to energy) in a muscle homogenate, was negatively correlated with the gains in FM, as well as in the FM–to-FFM ratio. According to Bouchard, et al. these correlations ranged from -0.42 to -0.48 (p<0.05).
  • Fiber composition of bodybuilders, recreational lifters, endurance rowers and sedentary control; determined via myosin heavy chain (MHC) isoform content of the triceps brachii muscle (data adapted from Jurimäe. 1997; figure originally published as part of the Intermittent Thoughts on Building Muscle)
    A high glycolytic muscle activity predisposes to fat gains: While being a good "fat oxidizer", i.e. someone who is not necessarily oxidizing more fat than glucose, but has the ability to burn fat effectively (high type 1 fiber count, high OGHD activity, see bullet point above) is a plus, the opposite effects were observed in those twins who had a high(er) ratio of PFK to OGDH muscle enzyme activities, which indicates that their muscles have a high glycolytic relative to oxidative potential. Remember: While people with many exclusively fast-twitch type IIb fibers, would fall into this category, bodybuilders don't - they do in fact have an abundance of metabolically flexible type IIx and type I muscle fibers (see figure on the right)
  • Thyroid hormones don't matter that much: While they can make all the difference when you are cutting, the basline TSH levels and the subjects response to a TRH challenge (this is test to evaluate, whether the pituitary response to the hormone that will trigger TSH release is normal) did not influence total weight gain, body fat or fat free mass gains. It should be said, though that all subjects were euthyroid and obviously not overtraining (learn why this matters)... well, there is one thing that did show a correlation though: Although it's not quite clear what the implications are, the early 30-45min TSH response during the TRH challenge was correlated positively with the fat mass to fat free mass gains. In other words, the more pronounced the spike in TSH, the more likely you'll gain fat, not muscle. Without seeing the corresponding thyroid response this could yet mean either that the thyroid is sluggish to react, so that the negative feedback takes longer to occur, or that the opposite is the case and a HPTA that produces larger spikes in thyroid metabolism is to blame for the increased propensity for fat gain.
  • Plasma glucose and insulin don't matter: We are approaching the end of the list and I have to admit that this is one of the things that kind of surprised me. In the end, the non-significant influence of both basal, as well as glucose stimulated increases in blood glucose and insulin levels had no effect on the overfeeding-induced changes in body weight, fat mass and fat free mass does confirm that "the fattening hormone" and the purported reason "why we are fat" is not an issue for those of us who are lean and healthy and whose body easily manages his glucose levels just the way it is supposed to be.
  • The restless ones don't get muscular: The fact that high baseline norepinephrine levels showing a significant negative association (r = -0.41) with increases in fat-free mass should remind you of something I want to scream at 50% of the people emailing me questions like "What happens if I eat another gram of carbs extra?" I can tell you if you are stressing out about these 100% irrelevant details all the time this and the corresponding constant psychological stress is going to do more harm to your progress than eating 200g of carbs extra, folks... but I guess those of you for whom this is an important message will continue to ignore this. So keep freaking out that you missed your macros by a blueberry, today - obviously you must be enjoying it more than the beautiful things in life.
  • Leptin and the rest of the hormonal pack: With a positive associated with the changes in body weight and fat mass gains the "fat hormone" (actually it's an adipokine, but since a "hormone" is a signaling molecule produced by an organ and the adipose tissue is imho an organ, it would be valid to call it a hormone), leptin, appears to be a fattening. On the other hand, higher baseline leptin levels are usually the result of higher baseline body fat mass and since fat begets fat, the latter is probably the common determinant. Leptins "good" cousin adiponectin, but also ghrelin and even IGF and hGH were totally void of pro- or anti-obesogenic effects.
Now that you are in the know about how where you are starting from, i.e. how fat you are, how fit you are, how muscular you are, what you muscle structure looks like, etc. a question arises and this question is...

Suggested read: "Building LEAN Muscle Starts With Losing UNHEALTHY Fat" and what you'll have to do first will depend on where are you on the fat/muscle mass (FFMI = weight/height[in m]² from ) continuum from "ripped bodybuilder" to "sumo wrestler" (learn more)
What are the implications: Well, I guess some of you may have expected the usual "eat this", and the notorious "don't eat that", when you read the title of today's SuppVersity article and... be honest (!) - I have already answered this question and told you that a 1,000kcal surplus would be too much for 99% of you to start out with.

When it comes to filter out a conclusion from the parameters the scientists evaluated, however, I still owe you a comprehensive bottom line  And if you wanted me to formulate it as short and concise as possible it's: Get healthy, fit and lean first, bulk 2nd. Your results will depend on it.


  1. Alright, time for a little Primalkid input. My goal here is to expand on Adel's last sentence (which is extraordinary advice IMO).

    Get Healthy. If you are smoking a pack of cigarettes daily or have issues sleeping, then forget about everything until those problems are solved. If you are overweight, have detrimental health implications, or other irritating health problems that distract from your life, then work on fixing those. If you have a poor posture from sitting at a desk all day or can't balance on one leg, fix those first. Before ANYONE begins to worry about getting a six-pack or putting on slabs of muscle, they should work to make themselves a self-efficient machine. You must address basic fitness parameters, as well as overhauling your diet to a whole-foods based one, first and foremost.

    Get lean. I don't care if you are skinny fat and have no muscle, if you want to successfully bulk, then work towards 10% body-fat first. Nutrient partitioning will be better, and your pumps will look way bigger ;)

    Bulk. Start your bulking routine and eat at maintenance. Find what your maintenance is during the bulking phase. Then, start by increase calories by 10% on workout days. Monitor weight weekly (i.e. weigh-in every Monday, not everyday, so that you can see trends and not obsess about daily deviations due to water, hormones, etc.). If weight stalls, increase calories on non-workout days by 10%. Repeat until you get a weekly increase of 1/2 to 1lb.

    Aside from weight, monitor progress in the gym. Increases in muscular strength is a damn strong indicator that your gaining muscle mass. Also use the mirror. Since you should be pretty lean before you started bulking, excessive fat-gain will be evident in the mirror.

    1. good advice, but I am not sure, whether you have to get to the 10% body fat range first. ESPECIALLY if you are still pretty fat, you will ruin your metabolism before you are there. In that case it appears more reasonable to work in monthly cycles cutting hard for 1 month, bulking lightly for another

    2. True, true. I never encourage prolonged dieting. Depending on the diet and starting body-fat, go for 4-8 weeks followed by minimum 2-week diet break (not bulking but eating at maintenance or slightly over to recover hormones, metabolism, etc.)

  2. Great article Adel, I really like the bulking/overfeeding/high-carb articles.

    I must say I'm particularly annoyed with the current wave that is at a trending high point in regards to "eat more fat, because carbs make you fat and sick". Also this includes SHR, love the show and still listen to it but there is a certain anti-carb tone to be heard in various episodes. Seeing articles like this, bulking on 800+ carbs and other posts like carbs before training facilitate fat loss make me happy. Myself, I've found nothing but benefits eating upwards of 1000g of carbs and I'm currently effortlessly leaning out eating a high carb/high protein diet (Not fasting just 3 square meals). Never been more satiated, as opposed to the unending hunger on a very low carb diet that could not be suppressed by any amount of fat or protein or meal frequency (This doesn't include the list of other maladies of low carbing I experienced basically:

    Sorry for the rant but I just had to say something that I feel strongly about.

    1. but Chuck, don't you know you "just cut your carbs (better eat none at all) and live happily and ripped ever after!" *rofl*

      the whole low carb thing is a typical phenomenon of what I like to refer to as "following your fat neighbor's diet", or in short - just because it works in the insulin resistant fatsos who are becoming the norm to the exception (which was the former norm), it is by no means optimal for people who are learn, insulin sensitive and work out 3 or more times per week

      and yes, I am pissed off by the only low carb is good for you undertone on SHR, as well, but it is improving as of late, also because I keep bombarding Carl who is by the way not eating hilariously low carb anymore with evidence to the contrary... still when he has another "expert" on like this crazy lady who wrote a book about her journey from one eating disorder (low fat + tons of exercise) to another (orthorexia + low carb craziness // she obviously did say she has found the way, but you don't have to be a psychologist to see what's going on, here) he is not going to say, "hold on a minute"... that's certainly sad.

    2. Hey Adel,
      I couldn't agree more. lol at the "expert" on SHR, that was one of the episodes that bothered me so much I just put on some music instead of continuing to listen.

      You can read things about people that are afraid to eat regular old potatoes, as if their white fleshy insides are the devil incarnate. I want to say something but I'm a rather lay-person (I enjoy the science from this blog and others but I'm not that well versed) who doesn't really want to argue with the low-carb gurus throwing studies at me showing the uber-awesome 9000% fat oxidation GH glucagon cascade synthetic response from high fat meals.

      For now I have great articles here that I check every morning and periodically I go through old articles (I probably have given more hits to the bulking on 800+ carbs than anyone in the world lol)

    3. Chuck, if I may borrow 4 minutes of your time ;)

    4. Ah yes, Der Führer! lol I saw that while I was deep into my low carb stint not too long ago. I would react like others and be cognitively dissonant. Just ignore it and chug along.

      Good post up above too I forgot to mention, fatter bodies just get fatter when increasing calories imo, get lean first!

    5. LOL that video is sooo good!!! Its just hard to me to read the legends instead of listening to what they say in real, being a German speaker :-)

      @Primal: Concerning your comments above and below on bulking, what would you think would be a reasonable weight gain for girls?! I know it is a pretty naive question and there is no standatized answers here, but perhaps you know girls who successfully bulked?! BTW, I am pretty much experienced (over 4 years), so rates will be probably pretty slow...

      cheers :)

    6. Half the rate a man would gain for numerous reasons. At 4 years of proper training, you could probably get away with 1lb. per month (maybe).

  3. Hey! Where did you get access to the full text version?

  4. As usual, a great article :).
    I really like your advice Primalkid, but don't you think gaining up to a pound in a week is a bit much? Especially when you are a more experienced lifter, I think making "effective" gains really slows down.
    I'm trying to build some muscle right now, but I'm more looking to gain about a pound in a month. I absolutely agree on the monitoring of the progress in the gym though, nothing shows good progress better than adding this extra rep or pound to a lift

    1. Amazing how most people can't live with a pound per month gain rate. 12 pounds a year over 5 years = looking like a fitness guru. Instead, it's gain 1 lb./week at a ratio of .25 lb. lbm to .75 lb. of fat leading to the bulk-up/strip-down unending cycle yielding <12 lb. per year. Wish I had figured that out 10 years ago...

    2. @Stefan, the rate of muscle gain is largely dependent on your training experience (and of course the training, genetics, etc.). I hate making general rules, but on average a beginner can put on 4lbs. of muscle per month, an intermediate 1-2lbs. and and advanced bodybuilder might be lucky with 1-2lbs per year.

      As for the ratio of LBM/fat-mass, everyone will be different and the leaner you are before you start bulking, the better the nutrient partitioning will be. I wouldn't say eat like they recommend in starting strength with GOMAD because of course you are going to get fat, but eating too little will only hinder gains.

      This gets at what Ross was saying. Its best to have a moderate surplus with the knowledge you will gain muscle AND fat, and to make gaining your only goal. Then you simply diet off the fat, rinse, repeat. It can be tedious, but focusing on bulking/cutting cycles rather than doing both simultaneously will have the best results.

  5. What do you think about this text: is it real or fake? If people eat dogs food, what will happen?


    1. Food is food. Dogs are animals like us, and can easily survive eating what their wolf ancestors ate. A lot of the trending dog food is practically human food.