Myth: If the number on the scale is going up when you start a lifting program, it's all muscle, baby!
Reality: Glycogen and water retention are usually the culprit for your weight gain, not an increase in pure muscle mass.
If you’ve been working out at the gym long enough, tales of Herculean muscle gain become common, almost legendary. Guys boast of losing 10 pounds of fat but gaining 10 pounds of muscle in a short amount of time. No doubt when you start getting bigger, these claims have you drunk with visions of amassing pound upon glorious pound of muscle. After a few weeks of weight training, the scale confirms your wildest bulking fantasies—double-digit muscle gains. Hell yeah!
Now, wait a minute, little Schwarzenegger. I hate to burst your bubble but there is more to this anabolic story than your scale is telling. Insulin sensitivity, testosterone levels, cortisol-to-testosterone ratio, muscle fiber type and other genetic factors aside, the ability to pack on muscle varies from person to person. Assuming proper diet, nutrition, rest, training and supplementation are in place, the average male can reasonably gain 1-2 pounds of muscle a month, or 0.25 -0.5 pounds of muscle a week. This increase in muscle and muscle repair means more water and glycogen (a building block in the body’s energy fuel) in working muscles accounting for the rest of the weight gain seen on the scale.
A general rule of thumb is for every 10 pounds of muscle gain, expect about 4 pounds of additional water and glycogen. Still not convinced? I know it can be hard to let go of the fantasy that muscle growth is virtually limitless under the right conditions. You must be wondering, “What about all the guys I see at gym who with massive muscle gains in a just few months?” If muscle mass was put on naturally, then the answer is simple—they have also gained fat.
“Eat to grow,” is what we’re told to do. Growing and working muscles need fuel. No argument there. If there isn’t a surplus of calories to support greater training demands, then the risk is muscle loss not gain. However, it is possible to take in an excess of calories and the wrong type of calories in relation to your energy output. It’s so easy to take things to an extreme in pursuit of muscle gains that eating to grow in order to bulk is really an excuse to eat recklessly. While there is a time to bulk up on unconventional foods, face-smashing donuts, Pop Tarts and pizza at every turn will result in some undesirable long-term effects on your body. This brings us to the topic of lean threshold and hyperplasia.
Hyperplasia is defined as “an increase in the number of normal cells in a tissue or organ, excluding tumor formation, whereby the bulk of the part or organ may be increased.” This applies to fat cells as well. We have a certain number of fat cells and those fat cells only have so much space to store fat. With this lack of space, what does the body do to accommodate the endless flow of incoming fat? Make more fat cells, of course! And we all know that fat adds more volume than muscle. In other words, you just look bigger because of the added fat. Do you see the long-term problems with this bulking approach? Aside from establishing poor and undisciplined eating habits, bulking in this way will make the cutting phase more difficult each time as the body acclimates. A vicious cycle will ensue with you gaining more fat with each bulk that is harder to lose with each cut.