It might seem like Americans are obsessed with losing weight, but for much of the male community at the University of Miami, the goal is not to slim down — it’s to bulk up. Bouncing around the gym, through the hallways of residential colleges and inside fraternity houses are phrases like, “Don’t skip leg day” and “Do you even lift, bro?” Joking or not, quips like these often put pressure on the men of UM to adopt a bigger build.
Whether these dudes are packing on the pounds for aesthetic enhancements or performance-related reasons, they often look towards the practice of bulking — eating a caloric surplus combined with resistance training — to size up. But what’s on the surface might not always show the whole story.
Simply put, eating more calories than you burn will inevitably cause weight gain. Add in resistance training — like weight lifting or calisthenics — and some of these new gains will turn into lean muscle mass. However, just eating more food won’t translate into a Dwayne Johnson-esque physique. Improper or “dirty” bulking can negatively affect athletic performance, hormone levels and body composition.
Andres Preschel, an exercise physiology student at UM who runs a fitness Instagram account called @HolyFit, knows the pressure to bulk up firsthand. Before he acquired his fitness knowledge and weight-training credentials, Preschel was a lanky high schooler lacking self-confidence as well as muscle mass. “I would always wear long-sleeve shirts and sweaters, you know, even when it was hot out, because I was ashamed of myself,” Preschel said.
“The summer going into my senior year of high school, my girlfriend at the time, my brother and some family members approached me, and they were like, ‘Hey, we’re worried about you — you’re really skinny,’” said Preschel. “I was in denial about it, and I was like, ‘Yeah, you know, I don’t want to go into college feeling so small and frail and weak.’”
That summer, the Miami native, through a neuroscience program at the University, had special access to the Patti and Herbert Wellness Center and both dining halls. He said that by exercising every single day and eating “all the time,” he gained 25 pounds that summer and has gained 40 pounds, mainly in muscle, since.
Some men looking to gain weight think that anything they put in their bodies will help them achieve this goal. Burgers, powders, supplements and processed food — they’re all calories, right? While dudes who dirty bulk will certainly gain weight, much of this weight will be stored as fat rather than muscle.
Preschel warns against what he calls ‘bro-science,’ condemning the idea that “mass gainer” shakes or a simple increase in protein — specifics be damned — will lead to the “Adonis bod” that bros are so commonly looking for. He says that he often hears men in the gym talking about processed protein powders or peanut butter-heavy shakes to bulk up quickly, but he emphasizes that whole carbohydrates are a much more effective and sustainable muscle-building tool.
“Where it bites [men] in the ass is all that processed crap will actually decrease testosterone, which is, you know, an extremely beneficial male sex hormone that boosts muscle mass,” said Preschel. “So, a lot of times when they take this ‘bro-science’ approach, they gain weight, but it’s not the kind of weight that they want — it’ll be a lot of fat and a very, very dangerous highway to just gain this type of abdominal fat.”
Experts agree that this type of bulking is a recipe for long-term failure. Professor Wes Smith, the director of UM’s graduate program in nutrition and human performance, offered up a number of reasons why athletes looking to improve their physique should avoid dirty bulking.
“Dirty bulking,” Smith said, “is a way for people to gain weight on a scale.” However, most of this weight will be in fat; this type of diet will cause an increase in insulin and negatively affect gut health. Smith said that dirty bulking can also harm cardiovascular health, as well as lead to chronic disease and even cancer. Guys looking for that “ripped” physique should also consider that a poor diet can slow down their progress in more ways than one. According to Smith, dirty bulking “can cause them to be nutrient-deficient in ways that take away from their training.”
According to Smith, the hardest thing is eating. In order to consistently put on one pound of muscle per week, individuals need to eat 500 calories more than they burn every single day. For an average-sized person who works out regularly, that can be a lot of food! So how can dudes create a safe and satisfying diet for muscle gain?
Instead of a “get-yoked-quick” scheme, men should aim to reach a healthy balance of macronutrients, carbohydrates, fats and proteins. According to the National Academy of Science, a balanced diet gets 45% to 65% of its nutrient intake from carbohydrates, 20% to 35% from fats and 10% to 35% from proteins. When it comes to weight gain, both Preschel and Smith agree that nutritious carbohydrates and whole — mostly homemade — foods should be at the forefront of anyone’s diet.
Many men “might be surprised to hear that carbohydrates are a great weight-gain food, because they aren’t linked to satiety and don’t have a thermal effect,” Smith said. Basically, carbs aren’t very filling and processing them won’t burn as many calories as protein. However, Preschel warns that processed carbs still aren’t the way to go. “When you consume, your body will convert [processed carbohydrates] to saturated fat, which can lead to disease and trigger a massive wave of insulin,” Preschel said. Instead, he advises males to “go for whole-carb sources,” which provide extra nutrients like protein and fiber.
Preschel also advises that although intermittent fasting — or attempting a modified diet where individuals only eat for certain windows of time — seems counterintuitive for bulking up, it can be highly effective. “It will take stored fat and convert it into energy, which is beneficial for cognitive and physical performance,” Preschel said. He emphasizes that a diet involving fasting won’t prevent gym-goers from packing on the pounds.
Gaining muscle is no easy task, but men should remember that shortcuts won’t help them in the long run. Sticking to a healthy diet of whole, nutritious foods is, by far, the best way to see results and stay out of the doctor’s office.
This article was published in Distraction’s spring 2020 print issue.
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