That’s what most fresh-faced trainees hear when they ask the big guy in the weight room how to move up a couple shirt sizes. While not the most poetic way to explain muscle growth, “eat more” does get to the core of the issue — if you want to get big, you’ve got to eat bigger.
Adding muscle is absolutely about mastering your caloric intake, but you also need to dial in your workouts as tightly as your macronutrients. Unfortunately, muscle doesn’t grow itself. You’ve got to work hard in the gym (and manage your recovery) to move the scale.
Since you’re presumably not going to the gym to lose muscle, we’re going to teach you how to gain it the right way. This is everything you need to know about bulking, and how to do it properly.
Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it shouldn’t take the place of advice and/or supervision from a medical professional. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. Speak with your physician if you have any concerns.
What Bulking Is (and Isn’t)
“Bulking up” has been common parlance in bodybuilding since before Arnold Schwarzenegger inspired an entire generation to hit the iron. While the word “bulking” may conjure images of a muscle-bound lifter in a stringer tank, the practice is simply the act of putting on lean muscle mass over time.
Bulking is not about adding body weight. The distinction is essential — adding additional muscle to your frame will increase your weight on the scale, but putting on excess fat moves the needle without necessarily making you look better in the mirror.
The Muscle Gain Equation
Much like hitting your first pull-up, gaining quality muscle mass is simple in theory and challenging in practice. A proper bulk requires attention to detail both in the kitchen and the weight room. Fortunately, when it comes to the fundamentals of weight gain, everything boils down to simple math.
Calories Are King
To bulk up, you have to consume more calories than your body burns on a regular basis. There’s almost no way to outsmart thermodynamics. Unless you’re completely new to resistance training or have been away for a very extended period, it is largely impossible to add lean body mass without a caloric surplus.
Increasing the surplus of calories you consume will result in faster gains in body weight, but you’re likely to run into diminishing returns with regard to additional muscle gain specifically. Research supports the idea that a moderate surplus of 300 – 500 extra calories per day is sufficient to put on “clean” weight. (1) Some individuals may need a bit more or a bit less, but it’s a good place to start.
Even with the right surplus of calories, temper your expectations for muscle gain. Those newer to lifting weights can expect to put on muscle weight quickly, but even athletes in their first year shouldn’t expect to add more than .5-1 pound of new tissue per month.
The quantity of calories determines your rate of weight gain, but the composition affects the quality of that weight. Broad recommendations for protein intake have gone unchanged for well over 50 years, but modern literature has mostly arrived at the conclusion that increasing dietary protein above standard recommendations has a positive dose-response relationship with gaining muscle. (2)
If you want to gain muscle, your caloric intake should also contain a sufficient amount of carbohydrates. While carbs don’t directly influence scale weight — contrary to popular belief — they do strongly affect resistance training performance, which is your catalyst for muscle gain. (3)
Dietary fat, while somewhat less important for facilitating muscle gain than protein, is the most calorically-dense macronutrient. Fat comes in at nine calories per gram, making it an extremely efficient means of meeting your calorie benchmark. (4) It’s also far less satiating than protein and is found in most meat, poultry, and dairy foods, so it can be quite easy to overdo it on fat intake.
The Whole Plate
You need to put down sufficient calories weekly to change the number on the scale. To ensure that weight gain is mostly lean mass and not spare fat, your caloric intake has to be properly calibrated. Your “training age” — the number of years you’ve spent dedicated to lifting — also influences your nutrition.
Research suggests that the more advanced you are in your gym career, the more precision is required with your diet. If you’re new to the gym, you can afford to be more liberal with your caloric surplus, a luxury not afforded to advanced bodybuilders. (4)
Fortunately, this calculator takes the guesswork out of the equation — all you have to do is plug your information in.
Training for Gains
If calories and macronutrients are the building blocks of muscle gain, your training is how you put those materials to use. Without the right workout program, you might find yourself with a big pile of bricks and no structure to show for it.
There are plenty of good programs to pull from, but guidance on how to approach your workouts while bulking isn’t as readily available. To get the most out of your hours in the gym and put all those calories to good use, there are a few things to keep in mind.
Making steady progress with your body should be at the forefront of your mind throughout a bulking phase. This may sound obvious, but it can be all too easy to get wrapped up in the details and forget the big picture.
If you’re trying to grow your legs and your squat numbers are going up, you’re getting a good pump in the gym, and you’re recovering adequately between workouts, there’s no need to make too many tweaks or changes to your form or program. Pursue perfection in technique, sure, but don’t fix what isn’t broken.
Be Tactical About Cardio
There’s a prevailing — and somewhat disingenuous — narrative in the fitness industry that lifting weights and cardio training are incompatible, and that to gain weight in the right places, you need to swear off the treadmill or track altogether.
Like all fitness myths, there’s a nugget of truth in the center. Research backs the existence of a so-called “interference effect,” in which mixing both modalities at the same time can dampen the body’s metabolic response to either.
However, this metabolic “interference” doesn’t appear to hold true across all forms of cardio and seems to be more of an issue with high-impact, high-calorie-burn exercise like running or circuit training. (5)
Cardio can help speed up recovery from training, but it also burns calories. Since you want most of your intake directed towards repairing and building new muscle tissue, easing up on your weekly cardio is probably smart, especially if you’re running a conservative surplus.
If you do want to leave a cardio session in your training plan, pick something low-impact and with limited eccentric tension, like cycling or swimming. Stick to one or two sessions per week if you don’t want to increase your caloric consumption to accommodate the extra physical activity.
More Isn’t Always More
One of the most well-backed positions in physical training is that muscle growth positively correlates with training volume. Put simply, challenging your body to do more work in the gym will necessitate more muscle growth.
Still, this is only true up to a point. There’s enormous individual variability in tolerance to lifting volumes, and it is hard to fill a cup that is already full. In fact, piling on extra sets when you’re only just keeping up with your current workload can be counterproductive and even halt muscle growth altogether. (6)
Training on a bulk affords you the luxury of increasing your volume to make more gains, but that isn’t the only avenue to cannonball delts or carved hamstrings. Increasing intensity on compound exercises, cutting down on rest times, or adding a few specialized techniques like drop sets or cluster work can help spur new gains without asking too much of your body.
Put Recovery First
When you’re a few weeks or months into your first (or second, or third) bulking phase, it’s easy to feel unstoppable in the gym. An abundance of calories, carbohydrates, and protein to fuel your workouts probably makes you feel like you could handle a 500-pound deadlift with ease.
Remember, though, that your training is only as effective as your recovery. The hours between when you step through your gym’s doors are when muscle is built back bigger and stronger.
Following bouts of resistance training, skeletal muscle requires between 48 and 72 hours to bounce back for another round, and potentially longer if you’re middle-aged. (7) To that end, make sure you’re taking at least one or two days a week off from the weights. You can still hit up some active recovery or mobility work to ensure your next session is even better than the last.
Bulking Supplements for Bodybuilding
If a picture-perfect physique came in a pill or tub, gyms the world over would go out of business. Fortunately for gym owners — and unfortunately for everyone else — getting the physique of your dreams takes hard work and heavy weights.
That said, there are some useful bulking supplements to consider if your diet and training are already laced up.
Arm day may be a breeze, but no one feels great on their fifth set of deadlifts. Even with more calories than you need, hard training is just that. A good pre-workout supplement should provide a welcome energy boost in the gym so you can get the most out of every set.
When analyzing pre-workout supplements, the most important ingredient by far is caffeine content. Some companies pack their products full of compounds and chemicals with little to no tangible scientific backing, but caffeine’s legitimacy as a strength-and-power enhancer is rock solid. (8) Like training volume, more isn’t necessarily better when it comes to caffeine — so make sure you’re dosing it properly.
Hundreds of scientific papers have corroborated the effects of creatine supplementation on resistance training. A five-gram serving daily is heavily linked to better performance in the weight room with essentially no side effects whatsoever. (9)
Before you fall prey to any of the broscience, know that you probably aren’t getting adequate creatine from your regular diet, no matter how carnivorous you are. Creatine is denatured when exposed to heat, rendering it largely ineffective. If you want to reap the benefits, you’ve got to get it as a powder.
There’s also no need to “load” creatine, or consume extra dosages over a short period of time. The best way to benefit from creatine’s effects is to be consistent and let it help your gym performance long-term.
A protein supplement may also be a wise choice if you’re having a hard time with a bulking diet. If you’re not used to heaping portions, the prospect of consuming hundreds of grams of protein per day can be a bit of a stomach-turner.
The benefits of various types of protein powders are well-documented, but there are two critical factors to remember. First, the majority of your macronutrient intake should come from whole food sources to ensure you’re getting plenty of fiber and other valuable micronutrients. Supplements are not meant to replace your diet altogether.
Further, you needn’t worry too much about the proverbial “anabolic window.” While many supplement companies tout the importance of dosing their products at just the right time, the literature broadly refutes the idea that timely protein intake is a major factor in muscle growth. As long as you’re getting it in throughout the day, you’re good to go. (10)
Mass gainers, living up to their namesake, can be incredibly useful for gaining muscle mass, but only if you truly need them. Despite the alluring name, mass gainer supplements don’t possess any unique characteristics that make them indispensable for hypertrophy.
What they do have, though, is a truckload of calories. Since the science supports the idea that even seasoned physique competitors sometimes need extra-high amounts of calories to make progress (4), mass gainers can come in clutch if the number on the scale just isn’t going up.
If you’re consistently plateauing with your weight gain efforts and shudder at the idea of adding another whole meal into your daily plan, you might want to pick up a tub.
One of the biggest problems with vitamins is that they’re not particularly ergogenic. When they’re working, you won’t really notice. However, depending on the quality of your diet or meal plan, you might notice their absence.
Bulking up sometimes requires eating when you aren’t hungry, something that can be extra challenging if you’re dedicated to nutritious, fiber-rich foods and vegetables. Getting a portion of your daily calories from “junk food” is fine within reason.
If you’re worried about the effects a not-so-clean diet has on your health, covering your bases with a good multivitamin might be a wise investment. Bear in mind, though, that it is not nearly as effective for stimulating growth or performance as creatine or whey protein.
Common Bulking Mistakes
On the surface, running a bulk is as simple as filling up your plate with your favorite foods. In reality, there’s a lot more going on behind the veil of a successful weight gain protocol. However, that also means there are a few potential pitfalls to watch out for.
Getting Carried Away
For some people, it is easier to adhere to a diet centered around restriction instead of abundance. A caloric “ceiling” is straightforward enough — you’re allowed a certain number per day, and that’s it.
But when bulking up, it can be far too easy to go over your caloric target, since doing so isn’t as strictly detrimental to your goals. An extra scoop (or tub) of ice cream at night can feel like no big deal, since you’re trying to gain weight anyway. Playing fast and loose with your calorie ceiling over time can leave you with far more extra body fat than you originally wanted at the conclusion of your bulk.
To keep fat gain under control, take your bulking calories as seriously as you would a fat loss diet. Weigh yourself regularly so you have an objective figure that reflects your subjective habits.
Struggling to Eat
Anyone can demolish a buffet after a long diet — whether it’s for a bodybuilding show or beach season. When consuming an exorbitant number of calories becomes a daily ritual on a bulk, those extra portions no longer seem as appetizing.
Large, calorically-dense meals can be particularly taxing to put down if you’re dedicated to eating “clean,” incorporating fibrous vegetables and low-glycemic-index carbohydrates at each meal, as those food groups are very satiating but lower in calories.
To avoid painfully stuffing your face when you’re not hungry, eat smaller meals more often. If you need to pack in extra calories at each meal, ante up your sauce and condiment usage. Including things like coconut oil in your cooking can help you stack up calories fast while also getting in some healthy fats to boot.
Bulking Too Long
The old adage that you can’t have too much of a good thing doesn’t extend to your diet. In fact, overstaying your welcome with respect to your bulk might have more detrimental effects than padding a bit more fat than intended.
Prolonged caloric surpluses are widely reported to increase insulin resistance, even in populations who regularly lift weights. (11) While not directly correlated, extended periods of overfeeding and the accompanying changes in insulin sensitivity may negatively impact the rate of muscle gain over time. (12)
In practical terms, this means that your bulking phase may be less effective the longer you run it. To ensure you get the most bang for your buck, limit the duration of your bulks to a couple of months at a time.
The Big Picture
Muscle doesn’t come easy. If you aren’t eating well or training hard enough, it probably isn’t coming at all. Building an impressive physique takes large portions of patience and diligence, and the right supplements to boot.
But if you approach bulking the right way — by eating enough, working out like you mean it, and prioritizing your recovery — all those extra meals will add up to extra inches on your arms, chest, and thighs. Gaining muscle is never easy, but it’s always worth the effort.
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