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November 09, 2020 10 min read

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. The leaves have either turned their Fall colors or have fallen off; depending on where you live there might’ve already been snow. There’s a festive spirit in the air. At least the gym air.

That’s right—it’s bulking season. 

It’s time to loosen the belts, break out the hoodies, and chug some protein shakes because things are about to get thick. But while the thought of running into the fray without a care is tempting, there is, as always, a right and a wrong way to do it.

Today we’ll be exploring the things that make a good bulk, a good bulk. When is it a good time to start beefing up? Do you have to bulk? Are there any special benefits, other than throwing calorie restrictions out the window? And finally: how do you make sure that when summer comes around, you’re perfectly set up to start turning heads at the beach once again.

But first, what do we actually mean when we say, “bulk”.

Changing Body Composition

Training is all about wanting to change your body, that much is obvious. Whether we’re going for aesthetics or for strength or something else entirely, work always needs to be put in. The way this work is done and organized can be categorized in various ways—below is just one of those ways.

The bulk can only be explained in relation to the cut and to the recomposition, or recomp for short. Bulking season is all about the gains. And hopefully gains that consist mostly of muscle, but we’ll get into that later.

And if you’re looking to get bigger, you’re going to want to be eating more and weightlifting. These are the basics, but that’s essentially what it comes down to. Cutting, as you might’ve guessed, is the opposite.

This is the part where you get shredded, the fat melts away, and the muscles you’ve been building come to the forefront. However, it’s also the time when muscle is much more difficult to build, since calories are limited.

Lastly, we’ve got recomp, which is basically what happens to beginners or those who are returning to the gym after not going for a while. Also known as skinny-fat, this phase is usually when the body is just getting used to the exertion necessary in strength training or bodybuilding. It’s usually easier to build muscle while also aiming for fat loss at the same time. The gains come easy at first, and then they slow to a trickle.

A man doing dumbbell flyes

What the Bulking Phase is All About 

That last point really highlighted the need for a bulk/cut cycle. As your body gets stronger and more jacked up, the gains don’t roll in as easily. And for those who have been working out for a while, it’s extremely difficult to both gain muscle and stay lean consistently. 

Of course, we’ve all heard of those programs that promise to give us bulging muscles along with single-digit body fat percentages, but unless you’re a genetic freak or are willing to kill yourself working out, then it’s probably not going to pan out very well. The name of the game is training smart, both in a single workout and over the long term, year-round. You want to be efficient with your time and energy because the stronger you get the easier it is to start paddling in place.

But speaking of the long-term—the seasonal aspect is one of the hallmarks of the bulk/cut cycle. Winter for bulking and the spring/summer for the cut.

Sweater Weather to Hide the Chub

The reason is simple: you’re going to get fat on your bulk. Hopefully not too fat if you stick to proper lean bulk tips, but your body fat percentage is definitely going to jump. But when it’s cold out, who the hell cares? Unless you’re doing a polar jump regularly, no one’s really going to be seeing the amount of muscle and the amount of fat you’ve put on. 

So, this is your chance to bulk up. Not to mention that the extra insulation will definitely help out if you live in a colder climate. 

But that’s about it when it comes to the seasonal approach. It’s entirely to do with aesthetics, and if you don’t care, there’s nothing stopping you from being the guy who bulks in the summer. But chances are most of us don’t want to be that guy.

The smart thing to do is to match up the seasons with your body fat percentage, cause that’s where it actually matters. 

Body Fat in the Bulk / Cut Cycle

If you’re eyeing up a bulk any time soon, what you really want to pay attention to is your body fat percentage. While advice differs, it’s generally said that a bulk should begin when one reaches 10% body fat for men and 20% for women, or under.

Of course, this is all up to you. If you’re comfortable putting on slightly more weight in fat to get some gains, then that’s up to you. But generally, people wait to get relatively slim before bulking up. It’s better to go from skinny to fat than from fat to fatter. That’s one way of putting it, but at the same time, it’ll also depend on how you carry your weight, and what physique you’re after.

Calculating Body Fat

So, you think you’re close to bulking season, but how do you know for sure?

There are several ways to calculate body fat, but it’s important to note that many of these will give you a ballpark range rather than an exact number.

If you’re looking for exact information, you’re going to want to seek out special equipment that’s not widely available. For example, machines that put you in an enclosed space and measure your body fat (and everything else) via the air you displace. Fancy, eh? 

For those of us who don’t have ready access to such technology, there are other options. While these options might not be exact, keep in mind that even the fanciest equipment is sometimes off.

First up are scales. In recent years they’ve gotten a lot fancier and a lot cheaper, allowing someone to measure their body fat through electrical signals sent through the body. The longer the signal takes, the more fat is hypothesized to be in the body. These can be, however, pretty inaccurate. They can be useful when measuring progress regularly and giving a ballpark estimate, but don’t lean too hard on their lackluster wisdom.

For many people, a better way is by calculating your body mass index (BMI), which also has the benefit of putting you on an index of underweight to obese. The formula is your weight in pounds multiplied by 703, divided by your height in inches squared. Taking account your age, sex, and the variables in the equation, you’re placed on a graph that tells you if you’re in a healthy range or not. A “normal” BMI is between 18.5 and 25 (note that this doesn’t translate to body fat percentage).

But, for several reasons that we won’t get into here, BMI is a pretty flawed system—even though it can be useful in some circumstances.

Lastly, we’ve got the relative fat mass (RFM) system of measuring body fat. It’s been shown to be much more accurate than BMI and can sometimes be even more accurate than cheap scales. It works by taking the same information as with BMI, but also being based on a ratio of height and waist measurements—something that BMI fails to do.

Why the Bulk is a Good Idea

While we’ve gone through the aesthetic reasons and how to find out if you should be bulking, there are some more technical reasons for why you should consider it—if you’re not convinced yet, that is.

For one, the process of building muscle works much better when you’re already lean. This is due to a few processes, including a high production of testosterone, high levels of sensitivity to insulin, and estrogen remains at normal levels. All of these nuances compound on one another to provide a solid foundation on which to build your gains. But wait—there’s more. 

You also don’t gain fat as fast when you’ve got a lower body fat percentage, for many of the same reasons as above. In particular, it’s the insulin sensitivity that matters most. With a higher insulin sensitivity, your body effectively stores more of your calories as muscle rather than fat.

And we’ve already touched on this last point at the beginning, but the leaner you are, the more you’ll be able to bulk up before you start cutting again. Sure, you can keep bulking till you’re happy with your gains, but chances are cutting season will be a dejecting time.

So, it follows that the leaner you are, the more muscle instead of fat you’ll gain, allowing you to bulk for longer and reap more rewards. When it’s all said and done, you’ll look seriously shredded when it’s time to cut once again.

Beware the Dirty Bulk (And Other Tips) 

We simplified the process at the beginning, but it’s not as easy as eating a ton of whatever food and visiting the iron temple regularly. I mean, it can be if you don’t care, but that’s not what we’re aiming for here.

Yea, you want to eat more, and the calorie restriction is going to be relegated to summer, but you also don’t want to go overboard. This can be seen in two ways. 

For one, you shouldn’t just be eating any old junk. Just because you’re trying to up your calorie intake does not mean your calories should all of a sudden become poor quality. The goal here is to gain as much muscle with as little fat as possible—yes? This will allow you to bulk for longer while also boosting your muscle gains. Keep your meats lean, your carbs complex, and your fats healthy. Which brings us to the next point.

The Meal Plan for a Calorie Surplus

Enough protein is the name of the game when it comes to muscle mass, so you always want to make sure that it’s the forefront of your caloric intake. A high protein goal to have is to eat somewhere from 1 to 1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight each day. Depending on what kind of eater you are, this can be either easy or hard. If you’re having issues, it’s always a good idea to boost your protein intake with some well-timed, high-quality whey protein shakes throughout the day.

But don’t forget about your fats and carbohydrates either. Both of these have gotten a bad rap in the past when it comes to your body’s fat storage. And it makes sense in a lot of cases, but just make sure you’re eating healthy sources for both of these macros. They’re very important when it comes to supporting muscle growth, so make sure you’re getting well-rounded meals. 

And the last point we have about food: don’t go crazy with it.

Yea, we know, we’ve been talking about the importance of food and eating at a caloric surplus, but don’t oversteer towards pigging out each day. Your daily calorie intake should steer in the direction of weight gain, but when it comes time for the caloric restrictions during the cut, things might get difficult, depending on your body type. 

Of course, treat yourself to cheat meals and don’t pigeonhole yourself into some wildly restrictive diet during bulking season—that’s no fun. But don’t think that more food is going to perfectly correlate with more gains.

Bulking and the Gym

Now that we’ve got diet out of the way, we can focus on the movements to make your bulk as rewarding as possible. 

When it comes to strength and mass, it’s the resistance training compound lifts that reign supreme—so stick to them. Treat your workout as you would normally, but make sure you’re pushing yourself hard with progressive overload enough to justify the extra food. 

However, do remember to switch things up every now and then. Hitting a plateau during a bulk would suck, and a good way to avoid that is to keep your body on its toes. And that doesn’t have to just mean switching out exercises for other ones, but you can also consider switching training programs and trying out new methods for getting ripped. Put your feelers out there and see if anything sticks. 

A man running on a treadmill

Cardio (Yup)

Summers over, the cut is done, and you’ve paid your penance on the treadmill for having a six-pack. That doesn’t mean the cardio’s done, however.

Cardio is useful for everyone—except maybe the lifters who are absolutely at the top of their game. But if we’re trying to find out when the best time to bulk is, that’s probably not us.

Having a couple of good cardio sessions each week will improve your heart’s ability to keep blood pumping and increase your cells’ ability to intake oxygen. Weight training can be aerobic as well, so having this solid aerobic foundation can be a boon for improving your lifts. You’ll be able to train harder and longer—there’s no one who doesn’t want that.

There’s also the obvious benefit of cardio burning fat. Remember all those great things that being lean gave us? We want to maximize that, and cardio’s a great way to do so. 

Don’t over-do it either, since that will cut into your gains. But we have a feeling that “overdoing cardio” on a bulk isn’t a problem most people have.

Putting it All Together

A good bulking season is a good time to be alive. Hopefully, your spirits will already be high, but make sure that nothing sneaks up on you. 

Keeping track of your progress is not only a fantastic motivator, but it’ll also prove invaluable when figuring out how you’ve changed between pre and post bulk.

That’ll allow you to better gauge how you did, what your body fat percentage started and ended at, and what you can tweak for next time. Especially if you’re doing a bulk for the first time, things might go awry—but having some sort of mark of progress will be a fantastic way to keep you motivated and going. 

Long-term progress is all about endurance, and long-term progress is where the real gains are at. Splitting up your training into seasons will put you on a cycle towards achieving the physique you want, and the more you do it the better you’ll get. 

And while the bulk can be a great time to be a foodie, you also don’t want to let it go on for too long. The bulk only works because there’s a cut following it, so we’d do well not to get sucked into the forever bulk.

The Cut at the End of the Tunnel

Finally, the day will come when you’ve squeezed out everything you could out of your bulk without going overboard. You’ve stuck to your guns, and they’ve repaid you by growing. The days are getting longer, and the beach beckons. 

Once you reach a body fat percent of 15% for men or 25% for women, that’s when you’ll want to start the cut. With a calorie deficit and ensuing weight loss, you’ll start losing that fat gain you’ve put on over the winter months. Your body fat levels will fall again with the proper training plan and eating under maintenance calories.  

But this time when the fat sheds away, there will be a new body left underneath.