TL;DR: Lean bulking because you cannot force-feed muscle gains.

The main reason why I am training is to get stronger. A stronger body can better cope with anything that comes up in life, is healthier and could, if taken care of, hold one active until later in life.

However, I would be lying if I didn’t say that I am also training for more “shallow” reasons. Simply put, I want a better looking physique. A little bit bigger and a little bit leaner. I like to say that your body is like a piece of clothing you are permanently wearing. If you’re putting time and effort in selecting your clothes and making sure you look good in them, why wouldn’t you do the same about your body?

Right now, and for the past few months I’ve been on a “bulking” stage following a rather prolonged cut that was necessary to set up the foundation upon which to build. But how exactly do you bulk? And what is the difference, if any, between getting bigger with bodyweight training compared to lifting?

Well, theoretically none. Putting on muscle is based on getting stronger on exercises that work your muscle groups. This work comes from tension, tension comes from resistance and the origin of this resistance – external weights or your own body against gravity – doesn’t play any role. Right?

Theoretically yes. In practice, not exactly. Or not only. Here’s the main difference when bulking with lifting weights compared to bodyweight training: fat.

When on a bulk you are supposed to be eating at a surplus, so that your body has enough macronutrients to both cover your daily expenditures and achieve a higher level of proteinsynthesis, i.e. replacing old muscle tissue with new and stronger. So the two main ingredients for getting bigger is the surplus and strength.

Being on a surplus however, naturally means that some of the calories you’re taking in will be stored as fat. That is the nature of the surplus, it is more than you actually need. Here’s where things get harder with bodyweight training. Fat is dead weight. It drags you down making every exercise harder. Muscle also makes you heavier, but it contributes to the execution of the exercise. And as long as you keep a balance between your muscle groups the performance should not suffer.

Adding just a bit of fat can make a noticeable difference especially on the harder exercises. Your squats might not feel different, but your pull-ups will. Your pushups will feel heavier. Your handstands will feel like you’re trying to lift the world on your shoulders. Generally any movement where you lift a big percentage or all of your weight only with your upper body will seem much, much harder.

I noticed this especially after my summer vacation. As I mentioned in another post, things got a bit loose plus I was unable to train for a couple of weeks. When I got back in the gym, I felt as if I hadn’t trained for a month. My weight had gone up on the scale for maybe 1kg, which is not a big deal, but I felt heavy and slow. By the way, that’s one bad thing about training: it’s like a drug, if you stop you feel worse then before.

So adding fat makes Calisthenics harder. Wouldn’t that be the same for lifting weights? No. Adding fat has absolutely no impact on lifting external weights. It does not affect your bench press. One may think that your squats and deadlifts would be influenced, but if you’re already lifting heavy there what’s another half a kilogram going to do? Machine and most isolation work also doesn’t suffer. Bulking when lifting weights can, in that way, blind you from the reality that you’re weight gains might be more fat than muscle.

Calisthenics doesn’t offer you this luxury. There is no doubt. When I was doing my strict pushups and hitting 15 with relatively good form and pace I knew that I was at a good level. When I started struggling with getting up to 10 I knew that something was not done right. Immediate feedback. Straightforward reflection of your lifestyle and diet choices. Direct impact on your training. A step back.

Having said all that it may sound impossible to progress in Calisthenics while getting bigger. Of course it isn’t. There are plenty of examples out there of big, muscular physiques performing pullups, and pushups for reps. Performing human flags, muscle ups, levers and all sorts of advanced moves that defy gravity. One thing you immediately notice that they have in common is that they are lean. Low body fat levels, often six pack abs and great definition.

The key, in my opinion, is speed. Or rather the lack of it. How slow you aim to get bigger. Enter “lean bulking”. Lean bulking refers to adding muscle slow and steady. Not that there is any other way. The muscle building process is a slow one, especially if you are a natural. I personally find claims of adding 5-10kg of muscle in a few months completely ridiculous.

The way I do lean bulking is by slightly, and I mean slightly, increasing my calorie intake on my training days. I figure out my maintenance calories based on my lifestyle and training and add 200-300 hundred more on days when I train. In other words, calorie cycling.

In theory, that surplus should add up to 900 calories/week. Which is not big enough to be adding weight rapidly, a good indication that I am adding as little fat as possible. Nothing like eating 3000+ calories everyday. I have done that in the past and I saw my belly getting inflated like a hot-air balloon ready to take off.

When following this approach without deviating, not much at least, I have not noticed my performance being influenced negatively. The harder I push the more I get, and I can be sure that when I push hard enough my weight gains come from strength not food.

I believe that your body is a reflection of your current level of strength and ability in the world of Calisthenics. I cannot do a human flag right now therefore I cannot be expecting to own a physique that can do a human flag. In my opinion, realistic expectations and patience are what it takes to get there.

There it is, a simple, realistic and sensible approach to bulking with bodyweight training.

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