Monday, July 1, 2019

Bulking Up?

The story of my first dedicated bulk requires grit because hurting is the first step to bulking. 

            A time machine brings us back to my early days of training…

Then a motivated young Corporal newly promoted, meritoriously. The board was not a phony “paper” one where they simply review our records. No, this was a full Marine Corps review: Junk on the bunk and wall locker inspection, close order drill, physical fitness test, rifle, camouflage, Alpha and Charlie uniform inspections. Ending with questions before the board. Members include the dickhead supreme company gunny and stern sergeant major. My highest scoring PFT ever is this day: still four points shy of a perfect 300. My stubby legs are nearly invisible when moving at that pace. It took a lot getting my run that fast, an 18:30-ish three mile. I run far, often. I weigh just 135 pounds. I stand 5 foot 5 inches short. Training only running, swimming, and calisthenics.
Front row standing at the end on the right.

               Not long after I change duty stations to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. There I am assigned to 3rd Platoon, Fox Company, 2nd Battalion 9th Marines. After a few months I am promoted to sergeant then transferred to headquarters platoon Fox Co. because the company has enough sergeants already in the line platoons to man squad leader positions; plus, they are more experienced. This mattered greatly as we are headed to Ramadi, Iraq very soon. This last minute intra company move put me in the armory and Company office where I found plenty of time to train. When I discovered weights. It is September 2008.

               The deployment ends with good progress on a few chosen lifts. While I read a lot of muscle rags on paper and online my actual training is random, effective mostly because I am a beginner trying hard. I remember clearly the 115-pound weighted chin up and the 405 deadlift, pulled without a belt. I weigh a mere 142 pounds. Funny because in the months before the deployment I drank and ate enough booze and garbage that my weight ballooned up to 160 pounds. I looked like trash, knew it, and felt the same way.

We return in May of 2009 and most everyone thought I would quit lifting. I did not and have not. Those first seven months of hard lifting was a cut, shedding the hard drinking from months – years before. I hardly drink anymore.

               Towards the end of the Ramadi deployment some of the gym rats are "influencers". Their kindhearted jabs even if viciously worded is genuine encouragement. Pushing each other towards extremes as Marines are known for. Such friendships and mentors are rare and should always be remembered and called upon for inspiration when needed. There is a good size group of dedicated lifters in Fox Company. Solidified when Fox is selected to go on ship. A short three-month stint for a Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force in the Gulf of Mexico. Extra muscle for DEA and Coasties.
Happens every time you forget them, classic blunder.

The break between pumps is not long and starts with a decision to “bulk up". At nearly 140 pounds I am too small. Still able to run decently, grinding teeth through a messed-up knee. But honestly… my lifts are weak and I am pretty much weak in general. I had to get stronger. To do this I had to get bigger. I knew it because everyone around me told me so. Stubbornly I resist, but quickly cave to their positive influence.

               “You bulking up?” Asks 1st. Lieutenant D. My old 3rd platoon butter bar, now the company executive officer during our time on ship. He is an absolute unit of a man. Tall, broad shouldered, with biceps looking about as big as my tiny head. For him sleeves up is not comfortable but that is the look everyone is after.

               Yes sir! I respond, mouth full.

He questions me many times this morning at the armory. Every time he passes the window I take a bite. My salad bowl is full of instant mashed potatoes with ground beef and bacon mac ‘n cheese. The spoon is too big. The corners of my lips almost tear when like a basking shark I inhale the casserole.

This is my usual lunch, or a similar dish thrown together from the inner most shelves of the grocery store. Those isles every health advocate tells us to avoid. That is where the calories are at: boxes of instant carbs and canned fats. A quick lap in the back is where ground meats in tubes of plastic pinched shut with metal clamps are found. This is the cheap stuff. The good stuff. The best stuff. That is, for bulking. Someone from Boulder, Colorado, drunk on two liters of bathtub kombucha, high on hydro weed, stuffed with two health bars and vegan Chipotle disagrees. Who cares? Nobody is rich enough to bulk shop at Whole Foods. Can it even be done? (No that is why they are all skinny.)
Still in a box and the cheese is old, how is this better again?

I try to finish a bowl of this insta-slop every day before I get home. There I try to eat but often fail to put down anything substantial. A ton of potatoes, breads, and pasta will do that. I struggle to eat more. Breaking past 155 pounds requires going on ship. Doing next to no ‘cardio’ (running). But lifting and training martial arts every day. Most important of all: lining up continuously for chow and asking my friends to get extra chow on their plates so I could eat that too. Those friends that are not bulking as hard that is. All meals end with multiple dishes: bowls for cottage cheese or yogurt, extra meat and hard-boiled eggs from the salad bar and whatever number of plates gathered around me from numerous trips through the mess and those plates I took from good friends. Food on ship can be bad but it can also be good. Most days it is okay enough to eat fast, for utility: purpose over nourishment over enjoyment.

Here the timeline will pause a moment so we can reflect on the way we eat today, culturally that is. We consume for happiness. Allowing our experience with it to be limited by this desire. We want to like what we are eating. We want it to taste and look good. Both are important to the modern civilized man who eats with distinction to feel good. Choosing flavor parings and savoring them. Enjoying small meals of elegance and nuanced taste. Perhaps a hearty steak is enjoyed, but never so frequently as a Caesar salad, light on the dressing, please.

This knowledge of eating must be forgotten, or at least staunchly ignored, when completing a successful bulk. I had the massive luck of learning how to eat fast at boot camp. There is little time to eat so shoveling a tray full of unrecognizable mashes and boneless formed meat patties gets easier after a few months at the recruit depot. This skill I polish while on ship. Eating quickly, knowing that volume gets harder as time drags on. This did not mean I quit eating when it got hard. Circling back in line was enough time, most days, to give a break for round two, or three, four, five; plate number this Marine can’t count that high. But I sure can stack ‘em.
Trouble tracking macros?
Count this, not that.

I stack plates daily to gain weight. Counting plates matters more than counting calories at this point. Calories are deceiving. They say I ate thousands of something. It seems like a lot: but it is not. Full plates ate clean and stacked higher than the cup is a lot. 

When not in the mess or lined up for it I am snacking near my bunk. Tasty treats, like cookies and pop-tarts but also a bag of whey protein and a tub of weight gainer bought at the Gitmo exchange. The tub I brought on ship ran out a week prior. I also bought two tubs of oats at the exchange, bringing those on ship to munch on with protein shakes like cereal between meals. Living in this environment is hazardous to one’s health; breathing the noxious gases in cramped quarters I mean. Many guys are eating a lot. ‘Bulking up’ becomes a meme thanks to a certain legendary article. It inspires the motivating call to gain. To eat everything in sight: “You bulking up?” You goddamned right I am, sir. 

Links of story provided by Dave Tate of EliteFts
1. 13,909 Cheat Meal.
2. Table Talk Podcast #13 - JM Blakely.
3. The Secret Diet for Gaining Weight.

While on ship I re-enlist with a lateral move to the Community Services field, MOS 4133. This is the group of Marines who run Exchanges (PX; “business operations”) and fitness for the Corps: from facilities to ordering equipment. MCCS guys and gals are closest to the barbell so that is where I put myself. Sadly, I leave my infantry friends behind. I remember them daily. Cherishing the motivation, the hard workouts and the final swims we took in the warm waters of the gulf. Returning from ship I achieve my goal bodyweight of 160 pounds; lean and still small. Too little muscle mass for my liking at least.
Left. About 160 pounds here. Months more bulking left to do.

The bulk continues for months, now at least six. The last three demanding hard eating every day, resulting in only five pounds gained. I was happy to have broken past a ceiling, or what felt like some limitation of 150 to 155 pounds bodyweight. While on ship I learn how hard I can go in the gym. This lesson carries me through the military job change that requires a move across the country. From 2/9 Fox Co. to 29 Palms, CA; a silly joke from the green weenie. Here I have no training partners, no one to inspire hard eating and lifting. All required for good bulking. Persistence carries me and slowly training partners are made. They start bulking up too. I am a good influence. Week by week we get stronger.

This interim period of going from infantry to other-than was a boon simply because the smaller unit of PX is left to our own physical training, most times. There is no longer a 20-mile hike to train up for and die through. Crushed under eighty pounds of gear, plus water, ammo and weapon; nearly 100 pounds of orniments. It helps that I now work in the exchange. Here I am around food all day and I do not ever have to wear a flak jacket. I never have an excuse for feeling hungry. When bulking the rule is: never be hungry. (When cutting: always be hungry.)
Some people want to die. Totally avoidable. Just eat.

Eating changes as the long bulk drags on, now for nine months. My sights are set high. I’ve already gone from 140 to 160, why not shoot for 180? This destroys the motivation to eat. In that destruction only will remains. That and a reliance on the near spiritual quality working out provides. It is a ritual where my hands are full of barbells and dumbbells, not forks or spoons. I learn to love one far more than the other. The workouts rarely hard like before; a respite away from the torment of so much goddamned food. Lifts and body weight creep up. I get bigger and stronger. Reaching 165-pounds in half the time it took to go from 150 to 155 thanks to the new job. The infantry makes it hard to gain. It is hard period. Not impossible, simply demanding the best to do any better; halfhearted attempts at anything are ridiculed to death. And so fucking be it.

When selected to deploy again, my first in the new “PX” specialty, I become resolute: None of these people know me, first impressions matter. I am still bulking the fuck up. Small fields, like the one I re-enlist into draw personnel from bases across the Corps to form “detachments”. From Virginia to Japan then assembled together under a parent command temporarily just for the deployment. Day one I see two familiar faces. Both guys from my first duty station. When I was near 30 pounds lighter. Totally unexpected. One recognizes my efforts.

“Lefever, you have been bulking up.” Says Brown.

“Ha ha. Yeah…” Now is not the time to discuss the effort. It is only the first day of this pre-deployment segment. The final ten weeks of a long bulk. I would be lying if I did not say his immediate recognition feels good.

Sitting at 170 pounds newfound motivation and new gym friends means my pace quickens. Everything quickens. We all are headed to Afghanistan. There are roadside bombs everywhere and our job is driving candy, tobacco, energy drinks and workout supplements across the desert hellscape. It could be worse. My job could be getting shot at, like my old infantry friends. Instead I will be selling them a taste of normalcy in Marjah, Afghanistan. Just two months away. Before we leave for “the ‘Stan” that familiar face, old friend and PT-stud Sergeant Brown, challenges my bulking prowess. His bulk starts hard out the gate. His motivation is to beat me to his goal weight before I make mine. His tactic: Just eat more than Cody. This short ‘work-up’ is when I discover how easy it is to drink eggs. Some lack the heart.

Everyday I mix three or four raw with whole milk and a scoop of protein powder in a full shaker cup. It tastes like cake batter, sort of. (A better recipe and means is provided at the end of this post.) I choke down the sweet slime first thing every morning, usually in hand with a breakfast burrito. Another eggy shake is drank in the evening. All day I eat. Some days training twice. Not everyone in this group is a ‘lifter’ and only Brown is bulking up. He gains fast. I gain fat, mostly, as I breach 180. He is taller but thinner, trying to go from 170 to 190. He makes 200. Chasing his beginner gains made me go overboard with mine. Though with so much food and competition between us I wonder what could have been achieved if Brown and I locked ourselves in the gym. Doing nothing but eating, lifting, and cajoling when not sleeping. Looking back, six to eight eggs a day was too much. More likely it was the daily California burritos for lunch; stuffed with fries, steak, cheese, and guac. Those last five pounds consistently putting me over 180 are 90% eggs and burritos; the latter plentiful aboard Camp Pendleton, California. Thank you Chesty. 
Plump. With just a hint of pecs; traps and delts finally coming in.
Abs barely there. Forearms still small. End of first bulk.

This period of ‘my first bulk’ was about a year long. Stretched perhaps needlessly an extra month; but that was when I made the greatest strength gains. Something about competition between Brown and I being in the air that affected the muscles, surely... “Bulking up” spanned from early summer 2009, after returning from Iraq, until late summer 2010 before leaving to Afghanistan. There I would cut gradually over the course of nine months. The long bulk meant I had muscle to hold on to during the period. It was difficult to get back to 160 pounds, but when I did the aesthetic difference was stark. Of the 180 pounds ‘walking around weight’ at the end of the bulk it could be reasonably figured that six to eight were “water weight”; this is less when cutting because such a diet results in less bloat. The remaining 172 to 174 pounds was around 15% body fat, not nearly as lean as I had been before at a paperweight 140-nothing. Cutting to 160 did result in some muscle loss but the results were worth it: I achieved a look I envisioned years before. Much like others have said before me:

You must build first what is to be carved away later. 
Just a few weeks ago. Starting another bulk.
Weight: 20 pounds less than the pic above and 10 years later.
After numerous bulk and cut cycles. 

Nowadays I do not bulk like this. Not that I would consider this a totally ‘dirty bulk’ but it would be borderline since I was eating some candy and drinking soda infrequently. Lots of sugar makes for a dirty bulk, purely opinion there. The sheer volume of food I had to eat everyday is something I relearn a little bit every time I enter a bulking phase. Volume does not make a bulk dirty. Some people are more active than they know, so they must eat a lot more than they think. That is the ultimate lesson: under eating is normal, enough is hard, eating more than enough is a challenge not meant for some.

Presently my bulks are much shorter, typically three to six months in length. Trying to gain four to eight pounds in the period. If I am feeling hungry a small snack, not a four-egg shake is had. Whereas before when I realized calories were a bad thing to focus on, they are more important now; predominately because I am older and not doing nearly as much ‘cardio’ and other physical activity. Early during my first bulk I was swimming often. This burns all the calories. Meat, principally beef is the protein source of choice. Followed by whole milk and yogurt, both Greek and non. I sill eat burritos, often, rarely filled with fries and guac. More often rice and green chilis. Point being: it still takes volume, but composition changes person to person; changing too as the person changes – needs change. Accept and welcome change: it means you are growing.

A new lifter who is hungry for the weight room should be loose on their bulking restrictions. Focusing heavily on volume as that is a skill they are probably lacking and must learn. Calorie dense foods, in large proportion, like baby sized smothered burritos are critical. Such is on their menu more often than the experienced lifter trying to gain 10 pounds before summer, then trying to cut a few; hoping to be a bit heavier – bigger – than last fall when the cycle resets.  
If you can't handle me at my worst,
you don't deserve me at my best.

There is not a right or a wrong way to bulk (or cut). It only depends on how fat you are comfortable getting, honestly. The issue people have is their perception of what that extra bit of fat is and how little muscle they have actually gained. Many turn back too soon regardless of how clean or dirty they eat. Keep in mind, this long bulk of mine took me from 140 to 180 pounds bodyweight. Sub 10% body fat to somewhere between 15 and 20 percent in just over a year. My lifts went up (height did not, still 5’5”) notably bench and squat. Going from low 200’s to upper 200’s for bench. Even when I started cutting I held on to my PR 285 bench, which felt great as I shed fat going from 180 to 160 in Afghanistan.  Squat gained nearly 100 pounds during the bulk, going up to almost 400 without “powerlifting specific” training or equipment. Squat did not lose much during the cut either. A three-hundred-pound squat when I was 140 seemed like a lot. After bulking that was nearly my bench. Deadlift increased by 50 pounds during the cutting phase. To me this was crazy. Pulling 455 in boots and utes at Kajaki is vivid to this day.

These were results I did not anticipate. Strength skyrocketed. I knew I would get stronger bulking up but was not expecting hundreds of pounds stronger in a single year. It is the first reason to resume another bulking phase, which now last until strength plateaus; then I cut, briefly and with more precision. Bulking forgives reckless behavior, like eating too many cookies and drinking too many brewskis. Bulking is hard but it is also fun. Too many fear it like I did but they should remember the end result and not wallow in their temporary fatness. Dad knows it is just a phase. Going full Lee Priest is not necessary. Defeatist “hard gainers” talk more than they eat, everybody knows it. Short and tall both grow, but each must eat. So have a friend to bulk with. Race them. Momma bird them if they quit; be a good friend. Much like how block periodization is accepted, so should dedicated bulking and cutting cycles. Find the nuance of execution that suits you, whether that is counting macros, calories, or plates. 
TBH both look great in their own ways. 
GOAT bodybuilder? No. GOAT bulker - yes.

So, are you bulkin’ up?

Scrambled egg recipe for frozen blended shake add in:

1. Wisk three to four large eggs in a metal bowl; add a half cup to a cup of heavy cream or half and half. (Quantity of eggs and cream dependent on bulking needs and taste.)

2. Flavor with ½ teaspoon vanilla extract. Real, not imitation. You deserve it. (Also try almond extract.)

3.  Wisk in salt and other dry flavorings, like cinnamon, to taste; experiment here.

4. Scramble in a hot pan with butter. Turn frequently to avoid burning the eggs.

5. When the eggs are fluffy and dry remove them from the pan and after cooling to room temperature place them in a bag for freezing.

6. Add these frozen eggs into any shake recipe, making a custard like high protein and calorie dense snack in your blender at home. I recommend a Vitamix because the consistency is always primo. Absolutely no problem with ice, frozen eggs, fruits, or nuts.