There Is No Failure, Only Feedback: What I Learned From The “No Bull Mass Gain” Experiment

Sometimes, you embark on something grand and highly visible just before you realize that you’ve already had a sea change you weren’t willing to admit.

Such is the case with my “No Bull Mass Gain Experiment.” I was ready to move on, I “knew” I was ready to move on, and yet I hadn’t admitted I was ready to move on.

I’ve mentioned previously that I’ve gotten deeply into rock climbing, specifically bouldering. This is a sport that relies on a high power to weight ratio, with runner up emphasis on flexibility and anaerobic endurance (depending on the boulder you’re climbing). Strength is important…mass less so. One can see how the outright mass gain would not align with this goal.

However, it’s important to step back and consider what has been learned and, more importantly, recognize how far I’ve come.First of all, I have no doubt the program would keep chub gain to a minimum while adding lean tissue as fast as possible. There were a couple of things I didn’t like about it:

  1. Obsessive eating: Kelly notes that after overeating for a period of time you get tired of food and vice-versa for dieting. After not really worrying about these things for the months preceding my Panama trip (and especially during my Panama trip) it was a massive pain in the ass to deliberately count calories and cut calories. After about 6 weeks, I was exhausted from this.
  2. Obsessive Training: I hate training for more than 45 minutes if I can help it. Most of my training is HIT-ish with some sort of metcon component to finish the workout and (as noted) an emphasis on hand strength. This might be 3 days a week or 2, depending on how I feel. Kelly’s program called for such specific training that it became tedious by week 2. I prefer focusing on a few large exercises while having additions to that somewhat chaotic. This way I focus on the big lifts and worry little about if I did enough volume for my triceps (more on this later.)
  3. Aligning training with goals: what I like to do requires a high power to weight ratio. Adding mass at the expense of everything else isn’t conducive to this. I’m not against adding mass but I’d be pleased with 10lbs over the next 3 years so that my body could adapt to the weight while bouldering. I wouldn’t suddenly be too heavy in the grand scheme of things.

Understand that so much of this was difficult to admit, specifically that I no longer wanted to be big for big sake Another thing that opened my eyes was Kelly noting that a person could be more muscular at a higher bodyfat percentage (I noted this in my Sumo wrestlers and Anorexics blog post), which is further expressed by Casey Butt’s “Your Muscular Potential” e-book (which I HIGHLY recommend). Mr. Butt’s exhaustive text comes up with calculations that are hugely accurate to determine just how large you can be given your genetic lot. He even manages to quantify “hardgainer,” a term that is thrown around like mad and makes people reduce their training volume because they don’t get stronger every workout. I know because I did this before I knew more about training. Structurally, however, it’s about observing muscle belly length throughout the body. For instance, when flexing my arms at 90*, I can fit 3 fingers from the opposite hand between where the bicep muscle belly ends and the crook of my elbow begin. This is his definition of “hardgainer.” According to Casey’s Formula, here are my maximum “hardgainer” potentials at 10% body fat would be:

  • Weight: 199.8″
  • Lean Body Mass: 178.9″
  • Chest:42.6″
  • Shoulder-width: 19.7″
  • Biceps:15.7″
  • Forearms: 12.5″
  • Neck:15.5″
  • Thighs: 24.1″
  • Calves: 15.9″

Understand that this has wiggle room but in practice it turns out to be very accurate. At 6’3″ I’d not win any building competitions but I’d be muscular, strong, and extremely athletically capable in just about any arena.

How far we’ve come

Anytime my fiance writes a life plan, she notes all that she’s done up to this moment as a means of perspective and confidence. It’s easy to get fixated on what you haven’t done and not give yourself credit for what you have done. So take this notice that, for the remainder of the post, there will be some incoherent ranting. Also note that this will give a brief summery of my training history, should you care about such a thing.

In the beginning: Age 15 – 18

Check out those sweet, sweet skinny-fat genes and those huge guns. It’s like play-doh got together with popsicle sticks. However, I could jump really high so that must count for something. Weight during this time was in the 158-165lb range. Also note the arm length…because I look at it and gasp at just how long they are. Also note that I went to school with Chuck Norris.

The Bulk Years: 18 – 25

So understanding that I was rather ectomorphic, I embarked on the “see food” diet, which included In-n-Out 4×4’s on a regular basis in addition to liquid weight gainer. I put on 16lbs during the first 4 months and continued for another year, which resulted in my weight 207lbs with a 37″ waist. Putting myself on a Zone-type diet, I lost 25lbs and 5″ from my waist in 12 weeks, as seen in photo 2. Hindsight is wonderful, as I suspect I lost a good amount of muscle and could have lost even more fat knowing what I know now. Later, I would get the bulking thing more correct, as seen in photo 3. I was 219lbs, 16+” arms, could deadlift 408 x 5 straight bar and 426 x 5 with the trap bar. Waist was only 35″ so comparatively better result. Note what I said earlier about size at a given composition, you can carry more muscle at a higher body fat percentage. In that last photo I hit every number nearly on the head for Mr. Butt’s hardgainer estimates for my structure at 18% bodyfat. Staggering the accuracy.

The Leaner Look: Current

As I type this I look like the above. Anywhere from 172 to 175 (depending on the scale) and 6 to 9% bodyfat (depending on the measure…I round up to 10%). I’m much stronger with regards to relative strength, as 408 x 5 isn’t even a double bodyweight deadlift at 219lbs, but 360 x 5 (my last peak deadlift) is more than double. I’m within 5% of the hardgainer maxes and look to get there in the next 3 years while becoming a much better boulderer(ererererer).

Basic diet is 14 to 18 hours of fasting daily, strength training 2 to 3 days per week, mostly paleo eating. I eat more when I’m hungry, less when I’m not, trying to add more calories on training days…keep it pretty simple. I do like to throw a post-winter 4 to 6 week leaning phase into the mix, which is about all I can tolerate of intense counting.

So are you chasing a goal that no longer aligns with your current state of mind? Write it down and see if you can’t get everything you’re doing to work toward a goal, rather than working against yourself. That’s what I accomplished with this post.

19 thoughts on “There Is No Failure, Only Feedback: What I Learned From The “No Bull Mass Gain” Experiment

  1. I had been wondering how things were going for you with this. I did try this for about 6 weeks after you wrote about it. I was not specific on the counting, just averaging it out. But I don’t follow the paleo diet so I’m not sure if that makes it harder or easier. I followed the week program and towards the end I got tired of doing the cardio on the low cal days because they fell on my weekends and I wanted to completely rest. Also I hate cardio. Still I gained some lbm during this time. I guess what I didn’t like about it is that I was ultimately training 5* a week. I can see how someone else might like it though.

    In the end you have to do what works for you. Your post made me wonder how many people follow a regiment that doesn’t fit their lifestyle and are unhappy or even worse, quit in the end.

    Like the title BTW

    1. Eric,

      I think paleo can make it harder for some people; I tended to get really full from the eating and putting down milk, even though I handled it well, tended to make me feel…a bit strange.

      I really think that an intense 2 week burst of both training and diet (ala ABCDE) a couple times a year would be great for gaining mass. This is how I would go about implementing Kelly’s ideas.

      Thanks for commenting!

  2. Having the nads to pull the plug on a publicly-announced experiment because that experiment is not consistent with your fitness goals, deserves a large order of respect. You bailed for the right reasons, and learned a bit about yourself, and your goals, along the way; a definite win-win in my book. Now, let’s get to work on that strength/power-to-bodyweight ratio 🙂

  3. Hey Sky,

    I really appreciate you writing this post. I’ve also been in this conundrum for some time, now. I was aiming for fat loss and lean gains at a bodyweight of 134lbs, 16% body fat and a height of 5″6. Obviously, I’d be unbelievably skinny if I managed to get that low.

    I’ve finally decided, after some choice words by Craig Ballantyne on his Facebook fan page where he pretty much told me off for overcomplicating things and which I appreciate, that I should take his advice and go on Jay Ferruggia’s Muscle Gaining Secrets. Well, I will not be bulking but just eating normally. I’ll be aiming to be at 150lbs before I start cutting down to about your level of leanness.

    However, I’ve also reached a crossroads in my goals and I’ve found that I should gain more muscle mass. Dieting for months on end has really been taxing and I’ve been made to suffer many occasions of falling off-track. Anyway, thanks for your post. Cheers.

    On a different note, do you stilldo Intermittant Fasting?

    1. Hey Clement,

      To answer your second question, yes I still IF. 14 to 16 hours a day with the occasional 20-24 hour fast. There’s no hard fast rule, it’s just that 14-16 hours happens to coincide with my last clients at the gym.

      Now to add to your first question, perhaps you could follow a Martin Berkhan Leangain approach: add calories on workout days (or more carbs around your work, same difference), remove calories on your off days and gradually “recomp” over time. This is in effect what I’m doing but again not chasing down exact numbers (which you won’t believe when you see my next blog post).


  4. Hey man, I was wondering if you could post a more comprehensive article on IF, things like pros/cons, how it’s worked for you or your clients that you have suggested it to. Its hard to find good information on IF as most of it on the internet appears pretty shady at best.


  5. Sorry to burst your bubble, but you had slightly better relative (speaking in statistical sense, not as relation to bodyweight) strength at 219lbs with 408lbsx5 deadlift. Refer to wilks coefficient… Why not try to have that deadlift back at current weight?

    1. Please elaborate how the statistical sense is different. I’ve only been taught absolute vs. relative strength in a non-stats way,

  6. Hi.

    Maybe my wording wasn’t clear, but I was referring to you being in slightly higher percentile strengthwise when you were heavier.

    To rephrase, I’m not speaking of absolute strength, I’m just saying you were rated slight higher in statistical group of “229 pounders” than “175 pounders”.

    To crudely illustrate this concept, you could compare % of world records you were making each time, or to be really precise calculate Wilks points for those two cases, as Wilks coefficient is already based on sound statistical analysis.

    Of course it won’t work just working out weight lifted/bodyweight ratio, as for example
    Bhaskaran deadlift of 256Kg at 52Kg bodyweight has almost 5:1 ratio, and Mészáros 408Kg/148.8Kg is “only” ~2.74 : 1, yet both were IPF World Records and represent top percentile feats of strength, and in this way are equal.

    Hope I’m clearer now.

    Good luck with deadlifts and bouldering.

  7. Additionally, I’m must have been not accurate enough in my calculations last time, because actually you’re very similar in Wilks score at both weights 🙂 (~1.05pt of difference) So percentile wise, your strength level is equal at both weights. As extra fat is not really helpful in deadlifting, I could argue you were still stronger then (at least potentially after slight leaning out, 4 pounds would suffice), but take it how would you like. You could argue that your current weight is better for bouldering, and would be probably right.

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