bulking

Why Bother Being Ripped?

The irony in this blog is that although I’ve posted several shirtless photos of myself to document my progress, I almost never take my shirt off in front of others in real life, not even at the beach (although I don’t find myself there too often). So what gives? Why bother getting ripped if nobody knows what’s under my clothes (with the exception of my wife)? For me, being ripped and staying ripped is the product of living what I deem a healthy lifestyle, although every person might have a different concept of what a healthy lifestyle is. I’m certainly not suggesting that if you’re not ripped you’re not healthy (in fact, I believe the two are generally mutually exclusive) but rather it’s that the habits I consider healthy and have incorporated into my life also happen to produce a ripped physique.

150 lbs @ 7% body fat. Mostly functional with a touch of vanity.

150 lbs @ 7% body fat. Mostly functional with a touch of vanity.

Vanity vs Function

Although I keep it to only a couple of minutes per week, I do admit that I enjoy taking photos of myself in the mirror. I like to track my progress. Is that vain? Is it more about form than function? There’s probably some vanity involved, but the lion’s share of everything I do is functional; it’s not for show. In my case, form follows function. I’m not interested in being ripped for the sake of it; I’m interested in having a healthy body, and being ripped just happens to come with it.

Let’s take three individuals with similarly impressive physiques, but for whom appearance tells only part of the story and can belie the truth about each person’s health.

Person 1: The “bulker” and cutter

This person prefers to be ripped for a portion of the year, using the bulk and cut method to put on muscle and [what I consider to be] a good deal of fat, then cut down for several months, losing fat and some muscle. Many bodybuilders engage in this practice for their sport. While this is perfect for some people (and probably necessary for bodybuilders), it’s not my cup of tea, especially considering that I don’t compete or have any aspirations to do so. I don’t like the concept of swinging fat stores and overall body weight in general so drastically over the year. I make no comment about how it factors into the health of others, but I know it’s not right for my health. I also believe that it can lead to more licentious eating (like things out of boxes or sweets) during the bulking phase. It doesn’t mean that all individuals who engage in a classic bulk are doing it, but it’s a common occurrence. Further, eating so much food creates a pro-inflammatory immune response and reduces the body’s ability to use energy for cellular repair because it’s so busy working to break down and integrate nutrients all the time. A ripped physique says nothing about blood profile or cellular health.

Person 2: The sculptor

This is an individual who is more focused on creating a ripped physique and less so on developing functional strength. He or she performs many sets of many reps of a mind boggling array of exercises to target every muscle from every angle. This is awesome for some people, but I stay far away from anything that resembles this type of routine, which results in little functional strength development, central nervous system inefficiency, and imbalances between muscle groups because I believe it’s simply impossible to know, say, how many triceps kickbacks must be performed for how many reps and sets under what kind of load at what speed to properly compliment the four sets of pec-isolating cable flyes you just performed. Why not just bench heavy instead?

Person 3: The full-body metabolic conditioner

Think CrossFit or boot camp style training. Lots of people love routines like these; they can be great for developing functional strength. I’ve personally done absolute monster loads of strength-based metabolic conditioning in the past. But if you’ve read my posts about walking, you probably know how I’ve come to terms with how counterproductive metabolic conditioning is for the average person (like me). I think it’s definitely helpful for certain types of athletes in small, judiciously applied doses, but otherwise I prefer to stay far away from it the same way I do targeted sculpting routines. Some (only some) CrossFit practitioners see peeing blood as the result of exercise-induced muscle tissue breakdown (a.k.a. rhabdomyolysis) as a rite of passage and wear it as a badge of honor (I personally think that’s the most absolutely insanely stupid concept/ practice on the planet). Metabolic strength routines can be hell on the joints and connective tissue. Those explosive movements can take a major toll on the body after years. I’ll be 33 years old soon, and I want to stay very strong in the least stressful way possible.

Person 4: Me

If I stand next to any of the three types of people described above I might not stack up visually, but there’s a good chance that I’d be ahead on the spectrum of functional strength, joint health and possibly blood health. Since I’m not interested in sculpting my body in the least, but I am focused on minimizing gym time, I perform absolutely zero targeted muscular work i.e….

  • no biceps curls
  • no crunches
  • no shrugs
  • no triceps kickbacks
  • no dumbbell rows
  • no cable flyes… no cable work at all
  • no pec deck
  • no leg extensions
  • no leg presses
  • no leg curls
  • no calf raises
  • no shoulder raises
  • no… you get the point

…and use only heavy compound barbell lifts, chin-ups, pull-ups and dips. This is how I’ve developed a relatively high strength to body weight ratio in virtually any anatomical position. I can strictly front squat 125%, back squat and bench 170% of my body weight for reps, deadlift almost 190%, overhead press 100%, chin and pull-up 130% and dip 160% for several reps. I list these stats not to brag, but to make the point that one not need look very strong to be very strong. If you’ve ever watched American Ninja Warrior you might have noticed that the most successful competitors are those who are masters of their own body weight. They’re people who can maintain precise control over their bodies under exceedingly physically taxing conditions for extended periods. These individuals are ripped more often than not, but they’re also usually only carrying moderate amounts of muscle. Whenever I see someone big and ripped ready to attack the course, I know they’re likely not going to be completing it because it’s virtually impossible for them to overcome the weight of their own muscle, much as the way an enlarged heart is more likely to fail. This is no knock on big muscles by any means–it’s simply a statement that I prefer to maintain a high degree of mobility and an ability to carry my weight in a more effortless manner. Ten years ago I was at 166 lbs (big for me) with 10% body fat, and I was a tortoise with poor endurance. And since being ripped is a year-round state for me, I’m not drastically swinging my eating habits. I might add a couple hundred calories into my diet by opening my eating window to four hours per day for a couple of months when I want to add a little more muscle, or close the eating window a bit if I want to lose a little fat, but this is primarily for reasons of vanity. At its core, the lifestyle I follow heavily favors function and integrated health before all else, and rippedness follows.

Covert Insulin Bombs, Lethal Vegetables, IFFYM and the Laziness of Clean Bulking

Calorie control is the name of the game; I had to understand this basic concept first to understand how to get ripped. It’s no secret that whole foods are typically less energy dense and more nutrient dense than processed foods. While the vast majority of my diet consists of unprocessed and lightly processed foods, there are several considerations I have to account for since I spend most of my day fasting, like not just eating the least calorie dense foods. I ate and still eat plenty of vegetables daily, but I do it strategically (see lethal vegetables below).

The secret insulin bomb

Here’s something interesting: I noticed some time ago that if I ate lean protein (like the breasts of flying animals) by itself, it made me feel the same way a straight bowl of plain rice would an hour later–i.e. pretty hungry and maybe a little lethargic. I did some web searching because I thought that was weird; I’d always been told that protein doesn’t stimulate much of an insulin response. It turns out that protein does indeed create an insulin spike, which is closely correlated with the protein source. Accordingly, different protein sources are associated with stimulating different hunger responses (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20456814). Although it might not be so relevant when fasting for 21 hours per day since insulin goes through the roof during the feeding window and it really doesn’t matter, it will be relevant when I switch back to fasting for a shorter period during a more pronounced strength and size development cycle. A longer feeding period = more time to overeat, even when “bulking” (which I have strong feelings about–see below). So insulin control becomes more relevant during this time. To buffer the insulinogenic effects of protein, I’d try to consume some fat with it (that is if I’m not eating a lot of vegetables with the protein) in an effort to smooth out the insulin response. I’ve found that consuming fattier meat like like higher fat cuts of beef or lamb or [prohibitively expensive wild] salmon assists with that. And in complete disregard for the Primal/ Paleo philosophy that practitioners need not monitor their calories because energy balance will take care of itself, I’d still watch them. In my opinion, that’s a dangerous practice.

The lethal combination of fasting and vegetables

Blogs are all about the hype, so the above heading is clearly necessary. Fasting + vegetables = death? No, not really, but fasting + vegetables could = trouble maintaining muscle mass. As I’ve increased my daily intermittent fasting window from 16 to 18 to the current 21 hours (9pm-6pm), my feeding window has contracted [very obviously] to just three hours. This is relevant for a couple of reasons that can work together against muscle and strength development. The first is stomach shrinkage; my stomach capacity has absolutely decreased since I began fasting more than four months ago, and especially since bumping up to 21 hours. The second is the space vegetables occupy in that smaller stomach. Although very nutritious, low-calorie and voluminous vegetables like lettuces, cabbage, broccoli, etc., take up precious space and digestion time, making it tougher to consume all the calories I need to maintain strength and muscle mass. One simple solution is to increase the feeding window. The other is to increase intake of calorie dense whole foods, like rice, potatoes and butter, oats and casein, cheese and sunflower butter or a serving of ice cream and a denser vegetable, like squash or sweet potato.

My experience with IFFYM (If It Fits Your Macros)

I mention a few times throughout this blog that I’m not a big fan of the “If It Fits Your Macros” (IFFYM) style of eating for a couple of reasons. If you’re not familiar, IFFYM permits an individual to eat literally anything he or she desires as long as macronutrient/ caloric targets are not exceeded (a macronutrient target is by definition a caloric target–request more explanation in comments if interested). I’ve certainly read about individuals who have gotten ripped eating whatever quality of food they choose, like donuts, fried chicken and pizza. Although I haven’t ever fully immersed myself in IFFYM, I experimented for a time with being more lenient about food choices, eating chips, pizza, mac and cheese, stuff covered in chocolate, more ice cream than normal, etc. While eating this way was extra fun, I found it to be counterproductive to my goals for a couple of reasons.

  1. I retained noticeably more water eating this way. I don’t know exactly why, but I have a feeling that the increase in sugar more than salt had something to do with it.
  2. My sleep quality was reduced. Perhaps something to do with elevated insulin levels or other hormone imbalances, but I won’t speculate beyond that.
  3. I was much hungrier more of the time. Granted, I had not begun fasting intermittently until later, so some of the hunger could likely have been attributed to blood sugar fluctuations that were the result of eating anything. But I’m almost certain that the hunger was closely linked to the poorer quality of the food I was eating. Specifically, my diet included more sugar and processed carbohydrates, which both elicit a significant insulin response (except for fructose, but that’s a whole other beast–request explanation in comments if interested).

I also think IFFYM exposes an individual to more unnatural chemicals and substances that are used to stabilize, preserve and flavor processed foods.

The Laziness of Clean Bulking

I’m doing my level best not to speak disparagingly of others across this blog. But if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s to read comments on forums left by people who say they are “clean bulking.” What they really mean (usually) is that they’re getting fat eating oatmeal, potatoes and milk. For me, it’s not only completely lazy, but it’s counterproductive as well. Why the heck would a person who isn’t a competitive bodybuilder want to be fat, bloated and slow for a good portion of the year, and then ripped for a few months? Sure, it could definitely be fun to overeat for most of the year, but I other thoughts about that. Fat is fat. It’s not like, “Oh, my left love handle is the bad one. It came from triglycerides that were the end product of Yodel and potato chip metabolism, but my right one, well, that’s the good one. That one is made of triglycerides from rice and seaweed.” Being fat is not healthy, and that’s not my opinion. I’m not suggesting that I think everyone should be at 6% or 8% or even 10% body fat, no. I’m talking about guys (mainly) getting up to 20% and 25% fat when “bulking”. The negative hormonal and metabolic effects of that level of fat are palpable, but especially so when swinging weight so hard from one season to the next. I think the idea of a “clean bulk” is used as an excuse for overeating with the belief that it’s necessary to build muscle and strength. Overeating is never necessary for building strength. Proper eating is. Eating just the right amount is. Understanding what the right amount of eating is for one’s own body and lifting regimen requires some time and work that I think the “clean bulker” either doesn’t want to put in, or might not know how to put in. Clean bulking might be healthier than IFFYM (or dirty bulking) because “clean” foods contain fewer chemicals and sweeteners, but fat is fat. Fat is fat.