Are you too FAT to gain muscle?

off season bodybuilder - Fitness Revolution RowlettEver heard of a “bulking phase”? This is where you see some gym rat that goes into a massive eating overdrive for a sole purpose of a caloric surplus to help with gaining muscle. Typically these people will gain anywhere from 20lbs to the excess of 50lbs during their time. I myself have done this where I had put on over 25lbs in a 4 month time frame.  Then after this bulking phase you diet down for the summer months to reveal all this new ripped muscle.

Come on – we have all seen or in some cases experimented with this tactic ourselves.

It originates from the bodybuilder eras of an “off-season” and “pre-contest” mindset. Remember, we as humans tend to think in the extremes, and you’ll see these bodybuilders put on some MASSIVE lbs during their off season but when they diet down they have now added some new muscle to show off on stage. The whole reasoning behind this is that it’s too difficult for the body to add a significant amount of muscle when we are not in a caloric surplus state, so if we REALLY eat we can just flood our bodies with ample calories and cause this growth spurt of muscle.


There is a small problem with this

Even I admit that when I need a client of mine to put on some significant pounds I’ll have them do a huge caloric surplus for a given time frame, but not for long. The reason being is that over the years of my own personal experimentation and working with clients there is a limit on how much the body can put on in weight and still gain muscle.

You see I first had this epiphany years ago back in college with I was trying to “bulk up”. I had a trainer at that time and in a four month time span we had managed to put 25lbs on my frame just by eating grotesque amounts of food. If I remember correctly I was averaging about 5000 calories a day with 7000 on the weekends, eating every two hours. Hell, I got to where I was eating PB&J sandwiches while I was waiting for my chicken and beef to cook on my George Foreman grill, LOL.

After I bulked myself up it was time to diet down and I’ll say I was a bit disheartened… after everything was said and done I had only put on about 4lbs in that time frame L

Sure it was fun to eat like I was at a buffet all day, but being that large did mess with my psyche a bit. I was always used to not shredded being but at LEAST having some abs, but those things almost went away (he wanted me bigger but honestly I wasn’t comfortable with the way I looked at that size). I’m very grateful that I was so active in college so I never really noticed a performance decrease in my sports but I could feel it, and after looking back at pics I looked like a puffy chipmunk.

All that to me just wasn’t worth those four pounds.

I have done that tactic once more, had clients go through it AND watched other trainers go through this tradition of bulking and not always getting the gains they were wanting. We want to put on lean muscle, NOT fat… I mean that’s why most of us are in the gym in the first place.


Why do this?bodybuilder off season diet

There is a revelation in the physique world that you can NOT put on muscle without putting on some form of body fat, so that means there are two primary phases a person is in (bulking and cutting). We have to remember that, as I stated earlier, human tend to think in extremes. We either think of the massive slightly fat power-lifter bulking or we think of that ultra-shredded bodybuilder on-stage look of cutting.

Most guys want to be big so they stay in the bulking phase, fixed on the notion that if they keep this up they are just going to be in this continuous mass gaining stage so when that time comes around when they do diet down they will look like a walking Adonis or some muscled-up movie star.  If only that were true.


What really happens?

There is a degree of physiological truth that you do need a caloric surplus to gain lbs of muscle, no one is going to argue with you there. The problem that we run into is just how much of a caloric surplus we need without getting fat.

When you start accumulating high levels of body fat (over 15% for men and 22% for women), the body spends its time combating its energy’s dealing with the residual effects of high body fat levels and NOT trying to grow. One of the most common things that happen with high body fat levels is that CRP (C – reactive protein) starts going up. This in an inflammatory response and the body seeks to spend its time and energy to correct THAT and NOT growing. That is just one example of many things that can hold the body back from growing.

Not to mention (from personal and client experience) when someone’s body fat starts edging over that 15% marker for men (22% for women) we start to notice insulin issues, or other words you become insulin sensitive. This just means that you are carb sensitive.

Insulin is arguably one of the most powerful metabolic hormones out there; this hormone can help a person gain muscle or in worst cases gain fat. If you become insulin sensitive then fat gain is traditionally pretty easy if you were to eat some carbs. That’s no way to live in my opinion.

Don’t get me wrong though – if you throw enough calories at someone they will grow and gain some muscle… wait, did I just contradict myself? Let me clarify.

Your body is primed for growth, but certain hormonal, chemical and metabolic functions can prevent your body from growing. Look at it this way – your body is a car and you’re in gear trying to speed down the road but you have the emergency brake on. Sure you’ll get somewhere, but there is damage that may be done and it’s not the most effective way. When you have certain misalignments in the body it’s like applying multiple e-brakes to your car while trying to speed down the highway, and high body fat levels are just an example of one e-brake.

With that said you can still grow and put on muscle but what you will find out after you are done bulking is that the majority of the weight you accumulated during this phase was just glycogen, water, food volume, crap (literally) and body fat with a little muscle added on.

What ends up happening is that we begin to really maximize insulin usage and growth hormone secretions and effectiveness when our bodies do no longer have to worry about the residual effects of higher body fat levels.

With traditional bodybuilding “bulking” methods, when we get into states where we start putting on high levels of body fat we run into a plethora of problems:

  • Lower Testosterone Levels
  • Higher Estrogen Levels
  • High Cortisol Levels
  • Adrenal Fatigue
  • Poor Insulin Sensitivities
  • Toxic Liver
  • Severe Inflammation
  • High Blood Acidity
  • Poor Digestion

I could keep on going but the above mentioned are the “E-Brakes” that I was talking about earlier in the blog, and each one of these that is going on is just slowing down the progress of allowing anyone to put on muscle and lose body fat.

I’ll go into further detail for each one in upcoming blogs but trust me, from experience and client experience, you won’t gain as much muscle as you want and you’ll just feel like hell.


Sergio Olvia - Fitness Revolution RowlettA little trick I have found

If you want to avoid these brakes from holding you back from your progress, the best and simplest advice I can give you is to lower your body fat levels and I can PROMISE that you’ll notice a substantial increase in strength and muscle gain.

Over the course of the years when I had a client wanting to put on muscle while still keeping a reasonably lean physique, the one way really stood out to me was when I actually started bringing their body fat levels down. Now, working with the person as an individual would determine HOW low I would bring them down. I have found through trials that when I keep body fat levels at 10-12% for men and 18-20% for women they are hormonally aligned for fast and optimal muscle growth. Some I can bring down even lower while still putting on muscle and I must admit that it’s pretty cool to see.

When we have these lower levels of body fat our bodies become sensitive to the primary growth hormones and we no longer have to battle the effects listed above of being… well to be honest being fat. Removing that brake of being fat really allows a body to just grow and grow without hesitation.

Have you ever heard of bodybuilders getting really lean, then after their contest is usually when they make their best muscle gains? Well, by keeping your body fat levels at a low (not too low – you be the judge of that) you’ll be in this hyper sensitive state almost constantly which is prime for muscle gains, and you won’t have to go through the struggles of dieting and bulking all the time.


Starting tomorrow…

Just asses your body – if you see that your levels are too high then make it a goal to get those levels DOWN, like we talked about earlier – below 15% for men and 22% for women.

I can assure you that when you do this you’ll not only look and feel SO much better, but you’ll notice that your performance in the gym and your body’s ability to gain muscle and lose fat becomes so much easier and more effective than before.



In Health and Awesomeness,




Travis Merritt, BS, CPT, CES, RBT is the owner of Fitness Revolution in Rowlett, TX.

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