Gaining fat to build muscle

by Brad Pilon

Gaining fat to build muscle

In my freezer right now there is a big ball of frozen cookie dough. It’s about the size of a baseball and I really, really want to eat it. In fact, I want to eat it so badly, I’m starting to justify why I SHOULD eat it.  And of course, my mind turns right to thinking about muscle.

‘I probably do need to eat a bit more today to gain muscle, gotta fuel the process you know….’

Of course, there is some debate about this statement, and logically I know I really don’t need to eat the cookie dough, especially since it’s 10:05 in the morning right now. However, this whole exercise does make me want to look at the arguments for ‘bulking’.

From my understanding the primary argument is that you need a ‘surplus’ of calories to build muscle. And while definitions vary, my understanding is that a ‘surplus’ means consuming an amount of calories above and beyond the amount used in your day-to-day activities and above and even beyond the amount actually being used to fuel the muscle building process. Basically an amount of Calories that will cause some amount of fat gain.

This logic suggests that you are not building muscle unless you are gaining some fat.

The problem with this logic is that it would mean you would have to be constantly gaining fat in order to be building muscle – so having a little extra padding wouldn’t cut it.  You’d need to be gaining fat every single day, otherwise you wouldn’t be in a surplus – you’d simply be ‘maintaining’ at a higher amount of body fat – and simply maintaining doesn’t require much in the way of calories – so in essence you wouldn’t be bulking, you’d just be ‘fatter’.

This next fact is often one that’s forgotten or excluded when talking about the calorie needs of obesity –  Every pound of Adipose Tissue (Body Fat) only burns about 2 Calories per day while at rest (not exercising). It would take roughly 100 EXTRA calories per day to support the maintenance of about 50 pounds of body fat.

(Incidentally this is the reason why overweight people say they don’t eat more than their lean friends – they are typically telling the truth – unless they are actively GAINING fat, it just doesn’t take that many calories to stay overweight).

So even being 50 pounds overweight doesn’t necessarily mean you are doing much more than eating an extra couple hundred calories a day – so to be truly eating at surplus and not simply maintaining you must continue to gain fat every single day. This means that a person who is using ‘muscle growth’ as a reason to carry a few extra pounds fat is really missing the mark unless they are actually GAINING fat.. not just maintaining a little extra insulation, but GAINING.

Of course, the other argument is that it is not the surplus calories, but the actual increase in body fat that is somehow needed for muscle building.

I really don’t understand the logic in this argument. High amounts of body fat lead to a decrease in testosterone in males as well as an increase in systemic low grade inflammation – two known muscle building killers.

I have seen people suggest that actual cells from fat are able to migrate to muscle and create more muscle, but I think this is misguided information based on the idea of pluripotent stem cells. While it is true that Scientists at Stanford University School of Medicine have discovered that the fat cells removed during liposuction can be easily and quickly turned into something called induced pluripotent stem cells, and eventually even into muscle stem cells, this is not a process that naturally occurs in our bodies. To date, it only happens in a lab with human intervention.

The kind of stem cells that you have in your body right now (no lab required) are generally multipotent, meaning they are  able to give rise to several kinds of cells, but only in their home tissues. So while satellite cells (muscle stem cells) are absolutely crucial to the muscle building process, adipose tissue stem cells are not, and gaining fat does not seem to do anything to increase the amount of muscle satellite cells you have available for muscle growth.

So currently I can’t see any reason why you need large amounts of extra body fat in order to build muscle.

Now, please don’t misunderstand this blog post – you do need energy to build muscle – the process of linking together amino acids to make proteins does take energy in the form of ATP. And, once your supply of ATP becomes low, it takes energy to replenish it…so calories are needed – but I will argue that they are permissive to the process. They need to be there to eventually replenish your ATP supply – but they don’t necessarily DRIVE the process of muscle growth.

You often here the saying “It takes bricks to build a house” to describe muscle building, but I’m sure you’ll agree that while it absolutely DOES take bricks to build a house, if you go dump a pile of bricks in a field, you can’t simply come back a week later to find a nicely built house. Similarly, if a home requires one metric ton of bricks, then supplying 4 metric tons won’t get the house built any faster/better.

Granted, picking on analogies is low hanging fruit, but the point remains – if it is true that a surplus of calories is needed in order for muscle growth to occur then you must actively be gaining fat, and I see no reason why there would be a difference between someone going from 17 pounds of body fat to 20 pounds of body fat versus someone going from 50 pounds of body fat to 53 pounds – It would take roughly the same surplus, give or take a couple hundred calories.

Especially since the ‘bricks’ in our analogy represent amino acids not energy – and as we’ve seen multiple times in multiple studies with many different study designs and subject groups – the ingestion of amino acids causes an increase in protein synthesis.  And here’s the kicker with this research – considering they measure protein synthesis over a 3-4 hour period, these subjects are usually in a caloric deficit* while the increase on protein synthesis is occurring – showing that ‘deficit or surplus’ may not be an hour-by-hour or even day-by-day phenomenon. However, I don’t want this to turn into a ‘building muscle while in a deficit’ blog post as much as it is a ‘how fat do you have to get?’ blog post. The point is it does take protein and energy to build muscle (I discuss this more in my book How Much Protein?)

(*50 grams of protein supplies about 200 Calories while a BMR of ~1700 would require ~300 calories during a 4 hour period)

So from this logic, I still don’t see why you need to be overweight to build muscle, especially since we know that you don’t lose muscle very quickly, so it also seems conceivable that our person gaining 3 pounds of fat going from 17 pounds of fat to 20 pounds could diet off the 3 pounds of fat without losing muscle (since losing 3 pounds of fat shouldn’t take more than 2-3 weeks at most), and then start over. Which brings us to our next point: Timelines.

It’s funny that most people accept the idea of a traditional bulking and cutting cycle as being 6-8 months of a slow bulk to build muscle followed by a 13-16 week weight loss period to get ready for a bodybuilding contest/event/beach season.

But when we start to shrink this time line, it seems that everyone has some sort of self-created breaking point where it no longer ‘feels right’.

Perhaps 3-4 months of bulking and 6-8 weeks of dieting still sounds “OK”, but then 1.5-2 months of bulking and 3-4 weeks of dieting sounds a bit iffy…

And then 3 to 4 weeks of bulking followed by 1-2 weeks of dieting? or how about 1 or 2 days of dieting and 3-4 days of slightly overeating?

Some where along those lines you probably thought to yourself “OK, that’s not enough”… But why?

I’ve seen some people argue that it’s because some hormones/processes need time to ‘ramp up’, but I’m not exactly sure which processes they are eluding to. We’ve seen amino acids moving into a trained muscle in the hours after exercise and we’ve seen the anabolic affects of a workout last for at least 48 hours after a workout..not START 48 hours after a workout.

In the end I think the main benefit of traditional ‘bulking’ is the biofeedback – you see something happening – you get heavier and you get bigger. As a trainer you are instantly getting your clients noticeable results on the scale. No one wants to admit that muscles grow incredibly slowly, and that noticeable changes in how you look can happen with as little as 4-5 pounds of muscle gain, and that most full grown men won’t gain more than 10-15 pounds of muscle in their lifetime (Note: Full grown men, I’m not talking about 18-20 year olds).

I’m also not saying that you can’t build muscle while bulking – as there is an abundance of internet anecdotal evdence to support this idea – my only suggestion is that the same amount of muscle may have been built without the need to gain massive amounts of fat, and to suggest people who have had problems gaining muscle despite the fact they *think they are bulking should look at whether they are truly eating at surplus, or simply maintain extra (an in my opinion unneeded) body fat.

The bottom line is even if a surplus is needed to build muscle (and this largely comes down to the semantics surrounding the word ‘surplus’) I’m still at a loss to explain why this surplus must involve gaining large amounts of fat. Ideally, I could see a lean man or women build muscle while still sitting at ‘lean levels’ of body fat and moving between Really lean and almost really lean during the process.






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