Lifting + eating + cardio = ?
March 20, 2014 9:39 AM   Subscribe

Trying to build muscle bulk but I feel totally confused by the advice about eating and cardio.

I’m currently a mid-20s sort of “skinny-fat” guy: BMI of about 23.5, but with no muscle definition, a fairly high body fat % and with stick arms. I’d like to build muscle tone/bulk so I’ve started lifting. But I’m confused by the cardio and eating advice.

Cardio: I enjoy running/swimming and it’s psychologically good for me. But I’ve read advice such as the below. What is true?
- don’t do it because it inhibits your muscle bulk gain
- do it because it allows you to burn fat
- do it, but only at a low intensity to not contradict with your muscle gains
- it has no impact on anything whatsoever (which is not true for me -- one summer I ran 20 miles/week and severely restricted my diet and lost quite a bit of weight)

Eating: I need to eat a lot, healthy, and a lot of protein to build muscle after lifting. Got it. But in the past, when I’ve eaten with little-to-no cardio, I’ve gained weight/fat fairly easily. How do I know that the extra eating I'm doing is going to building muscle and not just fat?

TL;DR: somewhat "skinny-fat" guy who can gain weight fairly easy. What combination of lifting, eating, and cardio will allow me to gain muscle bulk and not fat?
posted by andrewesque to Health & Fitness (6 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I do cardio for the psychological benefits. Even if skipping a month of cardio would turn me into a supermodel, there is no way I would do it. I don't want to be a depressed, anxious supermodel. But seriously, the psychological benefits are that important to me.

How do I know that the extra eating I'm doing is going to building muscle and not just fat?
Calipers? Visible muscle tone? Increased ability to lift?

When you say "extra" eating, I doubt there's any need to eat more than what you're hungry for. Let your body guide you on how much food it needs.

I'd say build the muscle first, even if that means you might be extra bulky for a transition period (still have the fat, adding muscle). The more muscle you have, the more you will burn calories just by ordinary movement.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 10:01 AM on March 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

"I enjoy running/swimming and it’s psychologically good for me." You probably know this, but: Cardio is really, really good for your health. Weight training is also very good for your health. You enjoy cardio, and it's good for your mental and physical health. So do it, unless there's some reason you really need or want to maintain or gain weight, like losing your football scholarship. Don't worry so much about your weight and eating. At your age, if you're lifting, you're going to maintain your muscle pretty easily unless you start going into starvation mode.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 10:02 AM on March 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

Don't get caught up in the details. A lot of the advice that you read online is directed at people who are struggling to make gains -- you won't know if you're one of them until you start. The fact is that if you're starting from a pretty low baseline like you are, you're likely to see results as long as you follow an established weightlifting program (e.g. Starting Strength) and eat a balanced diet. Just go do it for a month or two and see what happens.
posted by telegraph at 10:06 AM on March 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

To build muscle, you need to be at a caloric surplus. So, yes, you need to eat a lot to get bigger. As long as you are lifting strenuously enough, most of this should go towards new muscle. Some of it is going to go to new fat- it's unavoidable, just how bodies work.

You can do cardio on off days, as long as you still maintain a caloric surplus - your heart is a muscle, after all. However, I wouldn't run on the same day as a lifting session. Keep in mind that muscle formation takes quite a bit of time after a stimulus - at least 3-5 days. You need to bathe your muscles in nutrients to get them to rebuild stronger after tearing them down.

The idea is you take a block of time and stay in caloric surplus to build up a frame, then afterwards you can tweak your nutrient intake so that your composition changes but you stay roughly the same weight - this is the "bulk/cut" you'll hear bros broing on about.
posted by spatula at 10:18 AM on March 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

There's only a finite amount of work that you can recover from in a given period, but that doesn't mean that any amount of cardio instantly puts you over the limit. If at some point your lifting progress stalls and you don't think it's because you're under-eating or under-resting, you might be doing too much, and you could try cutting back on the cardio. Until then, go for it.

As for minimizing fat gain, train hard, eat enough to facilitate progress, and don't go overboard. If you stop making progress in the gym, you might need to eat more. If you start getting too fat, you might be eating too much. It's a process of trial and error. Simultaneous muscle gain and fat loss is definitely achievable for people new to training, but there's no trick to it other than training hard and being consistent.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:11 AM on March 20, 2014

Standard bodybuilder practice is to bulk---eat a ton, lift lots, and gain fat with muscle---and then cut---cardio+calorie deficit on top of lifting to get rid of the fat while keeping the muscle---in cycles. That's how they've done it for decades; some people claim to have sexier methods, but do we trust big flashy claims or decades of practical knowledge?

However, if you've never lifted before, you will have gains easy to start (on a good program). And bodies are wildly different. And, most importantly, the program for you is the one you will enjoy enough to stick with, and that won't screw up your head So I say go wild---eat a ton to put muscle on, and run to your heart's content. Worst case scenario, you have to change.
posted by paultopia at 6:54 AM on March 23, 2014

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