August 04, 2021 10 min read
So, you’ve been going to the gym for a few months now maybe and at first, you were experiencing plenty of gains. The newbie gains were rolling in and life was good—until it wasn’t. Now, after working your way through a fitness routine and your local gym, it’s getting more and more difficult to gain muscle. And this is where bulking comes in.
Bulking is a phrase largely used in bodybuilding, but it’s become ubiquitous enough where most gym-goers know of it or actively participate in it. The truth is that it’s difficult to find long-term muscle gains while consistently doing the same thing—especially if you’re trying to stay cut as well.
Bulking ramps up your workouts, your eating, and your physique. It’s the most useful tool for packing on more muscle, in terms of a routine. If done properly, it’ll take your physique to the next level, getting you absolutely jacked.
Usually during the winter season—whenever that may be for you—hardcore gym-goers enter into a “bulking” season. The name pretty much gives it way: it’s the time to get bulky, with both muscle and fat. It usually happens during the winter months because it’s much easier to hide the extra chub under more layers.
This makes more sense when you consider bulking in relation to the cutting phase of the cycle, where you limit your caloric intake in order to shed pounds and unveil a shredded physique underneath. This cycle of bulking and cutting is how bodybuilding is generally done. Building muscle and losing fat at the same time may work well when you’re just starting out in the gym, but it’s not a sustainable goal to aim for.
Furthermore, your gains will get much smaller as you progress. But introducing a calorie surplus and heavier training for part of the year is a fantastic way to consistently make gains, year to year.
The excess calories will result in a greater amount of fat and a greater amount of muscle, but this is where the cutting phase comes in. By restricting the number of calories you consume, fat loss will come along with some muscle loss—but most of the bulk up muscle will remain.
But how do you know if you’re ready to start a bulk? The best way to know is by looking at your body fat percentage. The fact of the matter is that you’re going to gain fat, whether you like it or not. You’re then going to lose this extra fat during the cutting phase.
However, you obviously don’t want to get too fat, which is why it’s important to start from a relatively lean state. Most people recommend anywhere from 10% to 15% body fat. If you begin your bulk over 15%, you’re going to be gaining fat unnecessarily, which will then be that much more difficult to lose.
Once you’re sure your body fat percentage is at a good point to start packing on the pounds, it’s time to figure out what to eat; and more importantly, how much to eat of it. The key to bulking is eating a caloric surplus. Everything you expend in terms of calories throughout the day should be replaced with enough calories—and then some.
The more you eat over your daily expenditure of calories, the quicker you’re going to start packing on the pounds. To figure out the amount of calories needed to maintain your weight, you can find a rough outline using a calorie intake calculator.
If it tells you that your maintenance calories are at 2,000, you’re going to want to eat more than that to gain weight.
But while bulking is about going big, that doesn’t mean it should be done balls-to-the-wall, no holds barred. For most people, a caloric surplus should be in the range of 300 to 600 over their maintenance. This will allow you to consistently gain weight while also not letting it get out of control.
If you find that you’re not packing on any mass, it’s likely that you’re not eating enough (or not enough of the right stuff). We’ll get more into clean and dirty bulking down below, but for now, let’s just look at the macros. When it all boils down, it’s about calories-in versus calories-out.
There are different diets out there that try to remove a certain macronutrient in order to lose weight, but for bulking, everything is on the table. However, you should still be eating your macros in the correct ratios for optimal gains:
If you’re looking to eat about 3,300 calories in a day, the breakdown will look something like this:
Tracking these things may seem nit-picky, but it’ll prove extremely useful for tracking your progress and forging a path ahead. Also, if you’re not getting the gains you’ve been expecting, it’s easy to go back into the meal plan and try to tweak different things for your body needs. Getting enough protein intake while avoiding excess fat will also be easier.
While paying attention to macros is important, it’s far from the only thing when deciding what to eat. The classic bulking that everyone knows and loves is the dirty bulk. The type of bulk where it doesn’t matter what you eat and when—everything is on the table. It’s the junk food, fast food bulk that hits hard and fast and gets a ton of calories in you for cheap and quickly.
However, the name “dirty” bulk probably gives away what you’re already thinking—this isn’t a sustainable way to lead a healthy lifestyle, especially if wellness is something that’s important to you. The flip side of the dirty bulk is the clean bulk, or the lean bulk.
And although it may be more boring, it’s still got enough leeway to make it much easier than dieting with a calorie deficit for weight loss. With the clean bulk, you’ll be able to minimize fat gain while still hitting your daily calorie goal. However, we all know that we should be staying away from junk food—so what should we be eating instead?
So now that we’ve gone over why you want to clean bulk rather than dirty bulk, let’s take a closer look at the foods we should be eating and the foods we should be avoiding. At the end of the day, it comes down to eating whole foods that aren’t processed while also keeping your macros in check.
And while carbs have gotten a bad rap in many fitness circles, you’ll definitely want to include a good source of them (and enough of them) in order to power your gains. Your body is going to need the glycogen produced by a carb-heavy diet. Even the extra insulin spikes due to carbs will play an important role in promoting more muscle growth.
Fruits and vegetables are always going to be a big plus in any diet whatsoever. They provide your body with a ton of vitamins and minerals that ensures your wellness is in check. They’re also good sources of fiber and carbs, allowing you to maintain a healthy body while you work for gains.
Especially starchy vegetables are important as well, as they’ll provide a lot of the energy needed to get you through your workouts.
Examples of good fruits and vegetables for bulking include:
In terms of grains and carbs, try to stick to complex carbs such as whole grains, quinoa, and brown rice. Simple carbs, such as sugary cereals and donuts, are going to kneecap your clean gains before they can even get off the ground. With fat, healthy sources are obviously the way to go. Avocado was already mentioned, but the fruit is a great source of healthy fat as well.
Peanut butter, olive oil, and fish all provide extremely nutritious sources of fat that will keep you healthy and consistently bulking. While generally, you do want to avoid unhealthy fats during a clean bulk, it does not mean you should cut out all fat. It’s a critical part of your body’s functioning and trying to skimp on fat to get faster results will only hurt you in the long run.
And finally, the main ingredient: protein. Protein is the building block of your muscles, so it follows that without protein you won’t have muscle gains. When you’re bulking, almost all protein will be good protein. Don’t go for the overly fatty protein, such as bacon, for example.
But if you’re backing it up with enough time pumping iron, you’re going to need to be fueling yourself enough. Seafood is always a great choice: things like lobster, salmon, cod, shrimp, and tuna. When it comes to red meat, ground beef, steak, pork tenderloin, and sirloin steak will build the physique you’re after.
And of course, we have chicken. Everyone knows that “classic” workout meal of boiled chicken breast and rice. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be quite that boring—especially if you’re bulking. Just make sure that the foods you are eating are healthy and whole, and you’ll be well on your way to meathead status.
Bulking is all about going big, and the training that it requires is no exception. You’ll want to go heavy with the weights and limit the number of reps and sets you do. While bodybuilding is a fantastic way to train as well, you might have difficulty overloading your body as much as you’re required to.
Using weights in resistance training will allow you to get much stronger and bigger—especially if it’s backed up with the right diet. Traditional bodybuilding workouts that split parts of your body onto different days are a good way to go as well. Not only will this ensure that you’re not forgetting any important muscle groups, but you’ll also be able to see how far you’ve progressed in a set routine.
When you’re already doing a “macro” routine in terms of bulking/cutting cycles, this only makes sense. This way you’ll be giving all your major muscle groups enough attention. In terms of sets and reps, there are usually two ways to go. The first is for hypertrophy, which necessitates high reps and light to mid weights.
On the other hand is strength training, which goes for heavier weights and lower amounts of reps. When you’re bulking, both your strength and size will be developing, but it’s better to go for the strength training side of things. The exercises you choose matter as well. For example, go for heavy, compound lifts that recruit several major muscle groups in the same movement.
This will allow you to move more weight, which will help to further develop your strength and size. Compound movements are also going to be efficient—guaranteed to help you work up a sweat. But speaking of working up a sweat….
For many people, one of the biggest reasons to look forward to bulking is that cardio stops being a necessary thing. While that may be the case for a lot of people, it’s a little more complicated than that. The reason that steady-state cardio is not recommended is that it cuts into your gains. Cardio is usually used for burning fat and toning, but it’ll also cut into your muscle gains at the same time.
This is exactly what you don’t want because you want to be focusing entirely on getting your muscles bigger. However, completely ignoring any form of cardiovascular fitness isn’t necessarily the smartest thing to do also. For one, it’s good for you. Keeping up your cardio fitness is great for your health, and doing a little bit can go a long way.
Also, it’s important for keeping your body fat in check as well. You don’t want to have to slog through a heavy cut in order to get ready for beach season, so it’s best to stay on the ball while you’re bulking. However, different forms of cardio can yield different results. It’s best to opt for a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) approach, rather than steady-state routines.
Interval training is able to promote muscle protein synthesis, meaning that it can get you bulky while also proving helpful in reducing body fat. It’s the steady-state stuff that’ll cut into your caloric surplus, and therefore, your gains.
The most important thing to remember with supplements is that they should never replace the nutrition you get from food—they’re only meant to supplement a good diet. However, you also don’t need to pussyfoot around them, especially when you’re bulking.
The big one is whey protein. When people complain about not getting enough gains during a bulk, it usually comes down to not eating enough. And not just eating enough, but not eating enough protein. If you get to a high enough level, eating should feel like a chore. This is why protein shakes with good sources of whey are almost a necessity if you’re serious about bulking.
The next best thing is creatine. It’s safe and effective, helping you get lean muscle gains while also turbocharging your workouts. If you get a high-quality supplement with other muscle-building ingredients along with creatine, you’re going to see much better results. That is, of course, assuming you stick to a good diet and excellent exercise routine. Cover these bases, and a well-implemented supplement will give your physique an extra edge.
For many, bulking is when you get to let loose-- let loose in the kitchen and let loose in the gym. You’re going to be gaining with the lifts in the iron temple and on the scale. But while you might be caught up in the testosterone-fueled frenzy that is bulking season, it’s important to remember the bigger picture.
You don’t want to eat yourself into a hole. When cutting season comes around, you’re going to want to unveil the gains you’ve worked so hard for. You might lose some muscle in the process, but that’s the point.
You want to be able to comfortably shed some pounds while still looking (and feeling) jacked as hell. This is why it’s important to keep your eye on the prize. And the prize, in this case, isn’t the current bulking cycle.
Always keep your eyes ahead to the next phase in your bulking/cutting cycle so you can come out on top and ready to go. Keeping a routine and building a healthy lifestyle around your goals is the best way to ensure long-term success.
If there’s anything that bulking reminds us of, it’s that fitness is a long-term marathon and not a sprint. Sometimes it’s good to take a step back, see where we’re at, and power on with systems and routines that consistently bring us to where we want to go.