If someone focuses on putting on muscle for a few months (or whatever block of time is normal) and gains 1-2 pounds of muscle, do those couple pounds of muscle actually make any physical improvement? Or does it take a lot of muscle (and therefore a long block of time) to see any changes? How long should a bulking phase last?
I doubt a couple pounds of muscle would make much visual difference. Mind you, it depends on where it ends up. If you were specializing a body part with everything else put on maintenance, then it would probably register as some kind of visual improvement in the specialized muscle group. That said, over the course of a few months, I’d expect more than 1-2 pounds of muscle if the dieting and training strategies were designed properly.
As for how long a bulking phase should last, I think it’s individual and should be based on:
- How lean you are when you start bulking (or how fat you are).
- How fat you’re willing to get (meaning at what point is it no longer acceptable).
I don’t believe bulking is a free pass to just get fat. Many people are still doing it the “old-school” way. While it’s definitely essential that you take in more calories in order to add muscle, an all-out feeding frenzy for months on end can lead to pounds of unnecessary fat gain – fat that you’re just going to have to diet off eventually. When it’s all said and done, a lot of these bulking plans leave you with more fat than muscle. Couple that with the fact that people tend to lose muscle on a prolonged diet (although with smart dieting this can be minimized), and it doesn’t seem worth it. However, expecting to not gain some fat is also unreasonable. If you’re trying to gain muscle, you’re simply going to have to accept the fact that with the new muscle there’s going to be some fat gained in response to the increase in calories. Trying to stay really lean while gaining muscle is a short cut to NO results. The goal should be to maximize muscle gain and minimize fat gain.
I think the best approach is to set a cut off point – whether that be a waist measurement, a set of caliper readings, an approximate bodyfat percentage, etc. I wouldn’t use bodyweight as a gauge however as it really tells you nothing more than what you weigh and gives you no information on body composition. So you’d bulk to that predetermined cut off point, and then do a short dieting phase to get your bodyfat back down and then resume the bulk. This also has the added benefit of resetting your appetite and giving you a short break from eating so much food. This kind of cyclical approach will prevent you from ever getting too fat.
The other benefit to this is the fact that the higher your body fat is, the worse your partitioning (basically the preferential direction of calories to muscle or fat) and the more fat/less muscle you tend to gain in caloric excess. The leaner you are, the more the opposite holds true. So basically, the fatter you are, the more likely your new weight is going to be fat. This lends more support to the idea of not allowing yourself to get too fat during your bulking phase.