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12th October 2015

Can you afford to bulk at university?

Bulking—the practice of carefully controlling your diet and exercise to put on muscle mass—is increasing in popularity. Is it worth the time, money, and effort?
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£43 per week. That’s how much a lean 3,000-calorie-per-day diet with my personal protein-to-carb ratio would cost me in order to become robust. And that’s not even including the gym membership. Despite the costs associated with getting a lean and ripped body, I know many people who have and will try to bulk at university. Hell, I even tried it myself. Unfortunately, I failed, and not just for financial reasons.

What is bulking, you may ask? Bulking is a process commonly used by an individual wishing to gain muscle mass and/or weight. In recent years, bulking has developed into a strong subculture that is particularly popular amongst young men. During this year’s Welcome Week, the fitness website even had its own stand, which gave out free protein shakes, towels and other bulking accessories. Indeed, there is a definite market for bulking products amongst students, and the trend seems set to continue.

Why are so many young people deciding to bulk? Rob Wilson, Chairman of the Body Dysmorphic Disorder Foundation, explains in a BBC article that “men are increasingly conditioned to think that they need to look a certain way if they want to feel successful, powerful and attractive.” He then goes on to explain that one of the group’s theories behind this current trend is that men have not adjusted to the increasingly physical representations of themselves in the same way that women have over the years.

This is almost certainly a consequence of the rise of both social and traditional media. The explosion in popularity of apps such as Instagram, Snapchat, and Tinder in recent years has meant that there is more attention given to an individual’s physicality than ever before. For many, ensuring that one looks the best one possibly can for social media profiles is a real concern amongst young men. Numerous Facebook and Instagram profiles of fitness fanatics have become popular because they represent a physical perfection that most can only aspire to achieve.

One such example is Scott Herman Fitness. A self-made health freak, Scott is a giant—both physically and in the social sphere. His YouTube account has more than 800,000 subscribers and over 1,000 videos, and he owns a website and countless social media accounts. Combined with increased pressure from traditional media such as Hollywood superstar and ex-professional wrestler Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, and Mark Wahlberg to name but two, looking buff has been given a spotlight that it has never before experienced.

My own bulking has been somewhat mixed, to say the least. Personal discipline is a huge factor that needs to be taken into consideration when deciding to bulk. Timing has to be perfect, diets need to be spot on, workouts completed in good form. In short, it’s exhausting. I trained for six months from March of this year until early September, and there were definite pros and cons.

During the summer break, I found that working out fitted around my lifestyle perfectly. I would wake up, have the first of my six meals per day (porridge and six eggs for breakfast), go to the gym, come out utterly exhausted, meet up with friends, and then repeat the next day. It worked for me because during the summer, life was simple. There were no lectures to which to rush, no societies to attend and eating enough food on a student budget was not an issue.

However, during term time it was a completely different story. Living in catered halls meant that I couldn’t choose what I wanted to eat and this caused problems. Sometimes I would skip a meal altogether if it wasn’t healthy enough, and when we went out for food I would always choose the leanest option, even if it broke the bank. I struggled to attend all of my society meetings, and I barely had enough money for nights out. I had friends who worked out, but our timings were always skewed. I would wake up very early and go to the gym even before I had my breakfast in order to fit the workouts into my day.

I eventually came to realise the contradiction at the heart of my ambition to bulk. I was bulking in order to become more comfortable in public, and when I realised that it was jeopardising rather than improving my social life, I decided I wouldn’t continue bulking in my second year at university.

That isn’t to say that bulking at university is impossible. One of my course-mates managed to pull it off in spectacular fashion. His forearms are the size of a small tree and he weighs nearly two stone more than I do despite being shorter than me. I asked him how he managed to afford bulking when he was at university and he revealed to me that he had done it through what is commonly referred to as a ‘dirty bulk’.

Essentially a dirty bulk is a means of achieving a calorie surplus with inexpensive and often carbohydrate-rich foods, such as pasta. I asked him of any downsides, and he simply replied: “I got really fat!” He later went on to say that he had adjusted the diet to reduce the calorie surplus. With him and his flatmate guiding and supporting each other and going to the gym together during his training, he has now succeeded in joining a sports division. I was left feeling seriously impressed with his achievement.

The purpose of this article isn’t to actively discourage the reader from bodybuilding, or from fitness. I certainly saw gains after my training. I was far less flabby, and my upper body was more muscular and defined. After all, an hour of exercise per day stimulates an individual both physically and mentally, so it won’t just make you look great, you could perform better in exams, too.

Simply put, my message is that it is vital to not lose track of the important things while you’re at university. Student life should be about learning, meeting new people, joining societies and experiencing everything that your university has to offer. I stopped bulking simply because I found myself saying no to these aspects far too often. Exercise should enhance your life, not become your life.

After all, you don’t need to be a big guy to have a big personality.

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