Athletes have always told me how eating enough to fuel their training becomes a chore. I wanted to discover for myself what it feels like.
I don’t know what’s wrong with me: On an average day, I can easily eat six hard-boiled eggs in one sitting, and today, in celebration of my Day of Bulking, I’ve even bought large eggs—instead of jumbo—to make them easier to pop into my mouth whole, like super-sized Tic Tacs. But after the third one slides down my throat, I’ve already lost my appetite. This doesn’t bode well.
Today is my first time bulking, the process of eating more calories than your body burns in order to add muscle mass. Generally, there are two ways people go about this process, says Brad Schoenfeld, a professor of exercise science and director of the human performance lab at CUNY Lehman College. For the first—known as a “dirty” bulk—you add roughly 1,000 calories to your diet and gain both muscle and fat. For the second—known as a “clean” bulk—you add 300 to 500 calories, which adds muscle mass more slowly but reduces the fat you put on.
Schoenfeld, however, stresses that each person will gain muscle differently depending on their current diet, history of exercise, body composition, training methods, and goals. To prove his point, he shows me a study in which the participants weight trained for 16 weeks. The top quartile saw their muscle mass increase by 58 percent, the middle two quartiles saw an increase of 28 percent, and the bottom saw no gains at all. (My heart goes out to them.) The best way to bulk, Schoenfeld tells me, is to re-evaluate every three to four weeks.
For me, a 5’9″ 175-pound CrossFitter of two years who generally eats well and consumes about 3,500 calories a day, Schoenfeld estimates that, over a three-month period, I might expect to put on four to five pounds of muscle and a couple pounds of fat if I did the 1,000-calorie bulk. When I tell him that I’ll be attempting to eat as many calories as possible in one day—ideally, 6,000 total, 2,500 calories above his recommendations—he isn’t encouraging: “The additional muscle you’d be gaining would be minimal.”
I know that Schoenfeld is right—and, after today, I’ll switch to a 4,000-calorie “clean” bulk the remainder of the month in order to gain strength without getting too heavy for bodyweight movements like pull-ups and rope climbs. For the next sixteen hours, however, I want to push my limits without any restrictions. Why? For one thing, I’m almost always hungry but never have the energy, time, or money to eat as much as I’d like. Athletes have told me how eating enough to fuel their training becomes a chore, and I want to discover for myself what it feels like to be on the same level as, say, Dwayne Johnson’s 5,500-calorie cod-based diet or Michael Phelps’ 12,000-calorie Olympic diet.