Winter is here — and for a lot of lifters, that means it’s bulking season. If you’ve been following me on YouTube, you know I’m right there with ya on my quest to move up (long-term) to the 242 lb weight class.
If you want to get big, the equation for success is simple: train hard, sleep a lot, and eat EVERYTHING. But let’s be real: not many people want to get as huge as possible. They want to add quality mass while staying as lean as possible — ain’t nobody wanna lose their abs!
Once you go down the diet road, though, the number of options can get overwhelming. There are so many different diet programs, so many different arguments about macro intake, meal timing, hormonal response, and everything in between that I believe diet is just as complicated, if not more, than programming.
When strength is your main goal, though, you can keep it pretty simple. To prove that, I’m going to analyze three popular diets for strength athletes, run through their pros and cons, and hopefully help you to decide how to come up with the strategy that fits your goals the best.
The Vertical Diet
The Vertical Diet is probably the simplest of all three diets I’m considering in this article. You can find plenty of details and intricacies elsewhere, but here’s the general approach it takes:
- You get all your micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, and all that good stuff) from your base (horizontal) diet. This part of your diet consists of foods like fruits and vegetables, whole eggs, and some dairy products. It was created by Stan Efferding and you can read more details about which foods are best here.
- The majority of your macronutrients come from steak and rice. Want to gain weight? Eat more steak and rice.
Obviously, Stan includes many, many more details, but at a high level, I think this pretty much covers it.
The Vertical Diet is simple, but that’s actually one of its greatest strengths: the simplicity makes it easy to follow. It also consists largely of foods that are easily and quickly digested, and therefore, it’s a good way to gain weight without feeling as sluggish or bloated as you might when consuming a large caloric surplus.
On the other hand, limiting yourself largely to steak and rice can get a bit boring, and the truth is, those foods are relatively low in micronutrients — so while you might be meeting your needs in terms of vitamins and minerals, you could probably do so in a healthier, more fun or interesting way. And isn’t that a big goal of bulking for a lot of people in the first place?
Another potential downside of the vertical diet: it’s expensive. Stan strongly recommends that you choose steak over ground beef, and if you have high caloric needs, the costs can stack up pretty quickly.
- Benefits: easy to follow, easy to consume high amounts of calories
- Drawbacks: relatively low in micronutrients, potentially expensive
Intermittent Fasting definitely can’t be called “boring.” I’ve written about IF for strength athletes before, so I won’t rehash too much here, but instead I’ll point out the more general pros and cons of the approach. As a reminder, IF basically involves fasting for most of the day, with a “feeding window” during which time you consume all of your macros by eating the foods you wish.
I think the biggest benefit of IF: it’s flexible. If you have a busy schedule, it can be really difficult to take time out to eat, and with any IF-type diet, that’s not really an issue. You just schedule your feeding window for when you have sufficient downtime. It’s also fun — the if-it-fits-your-macros-like approach to meals allows you a much wider variety of food choices than the other methods discussed in this article.
But, from a health and performance standpoint while bulking, I really don’t think IF measures up. It’s just too difficult to train hard and heavy enough to build quality muscle when fasted, and it’s too hard to get in sufficient calories if you’re only eating during a small portion of the day. It’s possible, of course, but most likely you’ll have to resort to eating a lot of nutrient-poor, calorie-dense foods (that is, junk).
- Benefits: flexible, fun, can be useful for fat loss
- Drawbacks: can be difficult to structure to maintain energy during training and consume sufficient calories while bulking
The Paleo diet has a simple premise: eat like a caveman. In other words, consume minimal processed foods and grains, and eat lots of meat, fish, fruit and vegetables. Paleo has become extremely popular over the years, and increasingly more complex and intricate, but that’s the high-level overview.
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In contrast to the Vertical Diet, basing the majority of your food intake around meat, fish, fruits and veggies is sure to provide plenty of micronutrients, and — because of the simple premise — it’s still fairly easy to follow, at least if you’re cool with preparing a lot of your own meals. When you’re eating out, it can be tough to avoid all grains, legumes, and sugar. Much like the Vertical Diet, however, it can be extremely expensive if you have a pretty fast metabolism and need to consume a lot of calories to grown.
Perhaps more importantly — and again, unlike the Vertical Diet — when used for bulking, the Paleo diet is probably going to make you feel pretty bloated. While the Vertical Diet relies on easily-digested white rice as a major caloric source, with Paleo, you’re more limited on carbohydrate choices. Trust me: it ain’t easy to down 4,000 calories of sweet potato.
- Benefits: nutritious, easy to follow
- Drawbacks: potentially expensive, can be difficult to consume a sufficient carb intake
Obviously, there’s no one right answer — part of the reason why diet debates can be so intense is that everyone responds differently to different foods, meal sizes, macronutrient intakes, and so on. All that really matters is what works for you! So my advice: choose the diet that appeals to you most, rather than worrying about what the latest guru recommends, or whether one strategy might result in 5% more fat gain than the other.
Remember: at the end of the day, it’s simple. Train hard, sleep well, eat BIG, and grow — a lot.
Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
Feature image from @staciardison Instagram page.