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Bulk Without Blubber

Q: In your opinion, is it necessary to bulk up for more than nine months out of the year and enjoy being cut for less than three? I tried to bulk and gained three pounds per week, but 90 percent of it was fat—with some stretch marks afterward. That was an unpleasant experience. I used bulking as an excuse to eat everything I saw—junk food, fatty foods, etc. Is it possible to build a respectable physique without going through those bulk/cut cycles? Isn’t it better to look good all year-round?

A: It really depends on your individual physique and metabolism. I used to bulk up in the off-season, but I was not eating junk food at all. In fact, I didn’t even eat restaurant food. I ate food that I prepared at home, and I ate like that all year long.

I ate good, complex carbs like brown rice, oatmeal, sweet potatoes, whole-wheat pasta and whole-wheat bread. I wrote everything down and counted exactly the quantity of protein, carb, fat and calories I was taking in.

I have to say, however, that if you increase your calories like that, you have to put the work in at the gym. I was training very heavy with the basic exercises and always trying to go heavier.

I also monitored my progress by measuring all my bodyparts along with my weight and bodyfat percentage and then compared it to where I’d been at the same time the year before. If you don’t train really intensely with heavy weights, you don’t need to eat that many calories.

I also used that type of diet when I was in my 20s and 30s. As I got into my late 30s, I found that I couldn’t eat that way anymore because my metabolism was slower. I was putting on too much fat. Also, I wasn’t able to train as heavy all the time because of injuries. My body couldn’t take all that heavy training anymore.

I don’t bulk up at all now; in fact, I try to stay lean all the time. Because I’m no longer competing, I just try to train as heavy as I can without the extra calories and carbs. Of course, I’m not as big or as strong as I was 10 or 20 years ago, but I’d rather be lean now than bulked up.

When I was competing, my goal in the off-season was to add quality muscle mass, and I found that the only way I could do that was to eat lots of calories and carbs—good complex carbs—along with engaging in heavy training.

For example, in 1992, the first year I won the Natural Universe, I was about 223 pounds in the off-season. I competed in three shows that year, weighing 198 to 200 pounds at each show.

In 1994 I was guest-posing a lot throughout the year, so I stayed lean—210 to 215—all year. When I dieted down and competed, I dropped to 194 and was too lean and flat. I had another guest-posing commitment about three months later, so I stayed on my diet but increased the carbs and calories slightly. I ended up guest-posing at 204 pounds, but I looked much fuller and bigger than I had at 194. In fact, even though I was 10 pounds heavier, I looked leaner. That made me realize that I needed to gain weight to realize my potential.

In 1995 I went up to 230 pounds in the off-season and was really training heavy. When I dieted down and competed that year, I went into the show at 204 and looked much bigger and fuller than I had a few years before.

In 1996 I pushed it even further. I went up to 243 in the off-season and competed at between 208 and 212 pounds. Again, I looked much bigger and improved from the year before. If I hadn’t put all the work into the off-season training and diet, I wouldn’t have made those improvements in size and thickness.

Years later I found that I couldn’t bulk up that much because I was putting on too much fat. You can use the bulking technique only if you’re really training heavy and hard and if your metabolism is fast enough to respond to it.

Q: I was told recently that I have pretty much reached my limits naturally in regard to my muscle mass and ability to build muscle. I’m actually quite disturbed by that comment. Here is the quote: “Seeing your photos, I think you quite well reached just above your natural limits, but forget about becoming much bigger naturally. Your physique is, for me, the perfect example of what is reachable naturally. Didn’t you notice your gains are slowing? You can have the illusion of getting bigger by bulking after a cut, but when you finish a new bulk and then cut, you’ll be at about the same point you are now.” I find that to be complete and utter nonsense. I’ve become more motivated than ever as a result. What are your thoughts on people reaching their potential or limits naturally? I personally don’t think that I am anywhere close to what is achievable.

A: I agree with you. Who knows what our natural limits are? If you’re still young, you can continue growing throughout your 20s and 30s. I think after we reach 40, our hormone levels begin to change, and growth becomes more difficult, especially for those who have been training all their lives.

When you’re younger, though, you can continue to grow and get bigger. It all depends on your metabolism and genetics, but you can keep growing if you push hard enough.

I started training at 14 years old, weighing 135 pounds. I gained 20 pounds the first year, going up to 155. After that my gains were slower because I competed so much as a teenager. I started competing at 16 and competed for the next three years, until I turned 20. Between contests my weight got up to 185 pounds, and I would compete at 170 to 175.

When I reached 20, I decided to take a year off and get bigger. My weight went up to 205 in six months—from December 1982 to June 1983—because I was no longer dieting for competition. My body responded to the break from dieting by growing quickly.

After I reached the milestone of 205 pounds, I was stuck. I guess you could say at that point I had reached my natural limit. I didn’t accept that, though. I wanted to gain 100 pounds from when I started training. I needed to get up to 230 pounds before I dieted again for my next contest.

It took me another six months, but eventually I got up to 230. Now, in order to gain that 25 pounds, I had to work my ass off, but I did it. I basically had to double my food intake in order to get past my superfast metabolism. I was eating a lot of food when I was at 205, but to gain more weight, I needed to eat even more food.

I ate a tremendous amount of good food—not junk or restaurant food—to gain that weight. I was eating seven-egg omelets every morning with three slices of whole-wheat bread with honey and butter. I ate half a pound of lean ground beef with four slices of whole-wheat bread for lunch. I had two protein drinks each day consisting of two cups of whole milk, one egg, one banana, protein powder and ice cream. I basically force-fed myself until I gained the weight.

It took a couple of months before I started to gain. Eventually, my bodyweight got up to 215 pounds, then 220, then 225 and finally 230. At 230 I was actually fat, and guys in the gym nicknamed me Sumo. I think I looked better at 220, but I wanted to reach 230 before I stopped.

When I dieted for my next show in November 1984, I went from 231 to 188 in 12 weeks. I nearly killed myself getting cut again. I sacrificed too much muscle to get ready for the show, and I was very disappointed with the way I looked at that show. For the next one I went up to only 225 in the off-season, and I dieted much slower and competed at 201 pounds.

My point is that after I bulked up and gained that weight, I went past my natural limits, and I did it naturally, without using steroids. I did it by pushing my body with extra food and very heavy, intense training.

I suppose my natural limit would have been the 205 pounds I weighed at the age of 20; however, I didn’t accept that, and I pushed myself past that limit. After I went through that bulking period, my body was changed forever. I was able to get back to 220 to 230 easily.

I was able to do that then only because my metabolism was so fast. If I’d tried that later in life, when I was in my late 30s or in my 40s, I would have gained a tremendous amount of fat and less muscle. In fact, by the time I was in my late 30s. I had to stop bulking up in the off-season because I was putting on too much fat and not enough muscle. It worked for me only when I was younger.

Editor’s note: John Hansen has won the Mr. Natural Olympia and is a two-time Natural Mr. Universe winner. Check out his Web site at, or send questions or comments to him via e-mail at [email protected]. Look for John’s DVD, “Natural Bodybuilding Seminar and Competitions,” along with his book, Natural Bodybuilding, and his training DVD, “Real Muscle,” at his Web site or at Home Gym Warehouse, Listen to John’s new radio show, “Natural Bodybuilding Radio,” at You can send written correspondence to John
Hansen, P.O. Box 3003, Darien, IL 60561.  IM

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