Long gone are the days when people thought hypertrophy was for the vain. In times of old, it’s true there was something of a schism between strength athletes and physique athletes.
“Bodybuilders are all show and no go.”
“But better body composition lowers your risk of a ton of illnesses.”
“But strength is most closely associated with longevity.”
“But bodybuilders are plenty strong!”
We could keep that made-up argument going back and forth all day but the truth is that it doesn’t happen all that much anymore because the science is pretty much settled: hypertrophy enhances strength and strength makes it easier to gain muscle.
And there’s one thing that both physique and strength athletes are familiar with: sometimes, you need to gain muscle. A lot of the time, athletes aren’t crazy concerned with gaining some fat along the way, figuring they can just cut down if and when they need to.
But whatever happens, you need to eat. And while lean bulking is complicated enough to fill a dozen PhDs, we’ve spoken to registered dietitian Sylvia North, MS, RD and powerlifter, physical therapist, and 20-time world record holder Dr. Stefi Cohen, DPT of Hybrid Performance Method to cover some of the most common mistakes you should avoid on your road to gains.
In this piece we’ll cover
1. Avoid the “see food” diet
2. Make sure you’re really eating enough
3. Don’t avoid carbohydrates
4. Eat fiber, but not too much
5. Supplement intelligently
6. Consider shakes for easy calories
7. Weigh the merits of fasting
8. Set a realistic goal
9. Consider calorie cycling
10. Reconsider bulking at all
Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems.
1. Avoid the “see food” diet
- Micronutrients, phytochemicals, and antioxidants are fundamental to progress
Once you decide to gain weight, visions of ice cream, pies, and candy bars quickly dance in your head. We’ll confess that a high calorie intake does have more wiggle room for junk, but that doesn’t mean it’s a “see food” diet — you know, one where you just eat everything you see.
“Bulking needs to come from the foundation of a nutrient-dense whole food diet,” says North. “When we are bulking and working to make a whole lot of new muscle cells, growth takes not only metabolic energy and protein, we’re also undergoing DNA synthesis and mitochondrial biogenesis. These processes require vitamins, minerals, and hormones — which also rely on vitamins and minerals.”
It’s also important to note that exercise is inflammatory, so in addition to vitamins and minerals we need antioxidants and phytochemicals to help with recovery and reducing joint pain, nutrients that are seldom found in your standard multivitamin.
When they do allow it — and there are plenty who never do, but when they do allow it — a limit of 10 percent of your calories from junk is often set.
[Learn more: 7 micronutrients that athletes need to be mindful of.]
2. Make sure you really eat enough
- Newcomers to bulking may feel their calorie goals are too high
This is for those who are new to bulking or calorie tracking. If you’ve never really monitored your calories and macros before, it can seem like a ludicrous amount of food. It may seem like a mistake.
If you’re a 6-foot tall guy who weighs 180 pounds, you’re probably looking at a minimum of 2,500 calories per day. If until now, you’ve just been generally sticking to whole foods and protein without tracking calories, then you may be in for a rude awakening. Two pounds of cooked oatmeal doesn’t even count as a quarter of your daily intake. That’s not even one meal.
Provided you’ve worked out your macros and calories based on your activity level, body composition, and preferences, trust the process. Your partner may give you weird looks when you’re hoeing into a heaping pile of rice and chicken after you’ve already had dinner. You kind of just have to suck that up.
3. Don’t stay away from carbohydrates
- Even if you prefer high fat diets, carbs can help you bulk with less body fat
Whether or not you perform better with more carbs or more fat is very individual. Some feel great on high fat, some on high carb, but even if you feel better with hundreds of grams of fat, make room for some carbs if muscle gain is your priority.
They’re especially great post workout: carbs spike insulin, which helps send glycogen to your muscles. Research published in Frontiers in Physiology suggests that when more glycogen is stored in muscles, you’re more likely to be insulin sensitive and less likely to accumulate body fat.(1) Now that’s music to the ears of those on a bulk.
[Which mass gainer has the best balance of protein and carbs? Check our list of the 7 best mass gainers on the market!]
4) Eat fiber, but not too much
- Fiber can make you too full to reach your calorie goal
When you’re upping your carbohydrate intake you might be of the mind that you should stick to those healthy carbs everyone’s always talking about: brown rice, oatmeal, potatoes, beans. All are great options but if you’re trying to consuming three, four, five hundred grams of carbs per day (or more) there’s a good chance you’ll simply be too full to fit in your calories.
Fiber digests slowly. It’s fantastic for weight loss because it helps you feel satiated. It helps you maintain insulin sensitivity and it promotes a healthy balance of bacteria in your gut, which can in turn lead to better immunity.(2)(3)(4)
But it’s damn filling. Hit your recommended daily intake but don’t forget the magic of strategically timed white rice, fruit juice, or even carbohydrate supplements: they can make high carb diets a million times easier.
5. Supplement intelligently
- Protein powder and creatine are all most people need
There are hundreds of products swearing up and down that they’ve got the unique qualities to help you gain slab after slab of pure muscle. Testosterone boosters, growth hormone boosters, muscle volumizers, the list goes on.
The best supplements for gaining muscle are: creatine and protein powder. Multivitamins are a smart (but not foolproof) way to help with recovery. Mass gainers are a little more controversial, but a decent way to get some extra calories provided you’re still meeting your macro and micronutrient requirements. Save your money on the other stuff.
[Learn more with our picks for the best whey proteins you can buy.]
6. If you can’t eat ‘em, drink ‘em
- Blending food is an underrated way to consume more calories from whole foods
If you’re struggling with feelings of overwhelming fullness, consider replacing one of your meal with a shake. Meal replacement shakes can be great, as can blending up concoctions of frozen bananas, berries, spinach, coconut oil, avocado, oatmeal, peanut butter, protein powder — the precise recipe depends on your macros and tastes, of course.
Shakes can make it a lot easier to down five hundred or even a thousand calories, though evidence is mixed as to whether or not a shake makes you feel less full (because you don’t need to digest as much) or more full (because the stomach usually empties liquids before solids, and it’s tougher to do that when it’s all blended together).(5)
See what works for you, just don’t buy into the myths that blending somehow destroys the nutrition of the whole foods. It’s true that cutting or blending fruit and then not consuming it immediately can cause it to lose some Vitamin C, but even if you leave your shake for a few days it won’t lose that much: research published in Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that leaving cut fruits for 9 days in a fridge only caused them to lose between 10 and 25 percent of their Vitamin C.(6)
[Read more: BarBend’s 10 best meal replacement shakes on the market!]
7. Fasting may not be the best idea
- Fasting’s effects on body comp are debatable and may be better geared for weight loss
There’s a lot of well justified hype behind skipping meals, with some studies suggesting that taking long breaks between eating can lead to more fat burned and better insulin sensitivity.(7)(8)(9)(10) That said, there are also studies that show so long as your calories are the same, it doesn’t matter if you fast or not.(11) There’s also evidence, published in Obesity, that less frequent feeding could reduce feelings of hunger — great for fat loss, not so great when you’re trying to bulk.(12)
It’s a complicated topic and whether or not it’s a good protocol for you really comes down to how much you like doing it, but one thing is hard to deny: when you have less time to eat your calories and you’ve got a lot of calories to eat, it’s harder to fit them all in.
[Curiosity piqued? Check out our complete guide to intermittent fasting to see if it’s right for you.]
8. Set a realistic goal
- You can’t gain more than 0.5 pounds of muscle a week
As a general rule, the most fat you can comfortably lose in a week is a pound. That’s a lot. Unconsciously, some folks assume that means you can gain a pound of quality mass in a week. We know the internet abounds with tales of people who gained 10 pounds of solid muscle in just ten weeks, but for folks who compete naturally, that’s really not the case.
“Bulking should be done intelligently to maximize muscle building. Macros should be calculated, meals should be prepped. (In that way) the process needs to be exactly the same as if you were cutting,” says Cohen. “You should figure out maintenance level calories, then you very slowly increase your intake five to ten grams here, five to ten grams there, until you average a gain of 0.2 to 0.5 pounds per week at most. That way you can minimize fat gain and maximize lean muscle gain.”
9. Consider calorie cycling
- Eat more calories and carbs on training days than rest days
We know that there’s no shortage of folks who say so long as your calories are the same at the end of the week, it doesn’t matter when you eat them. That said, if you’re interested in gaining muscle and strength in the most optimal fashion, there’s a strong argument to be made for calorie cycling.
Despite the wealth of anecdotal evidence, to be fair, there aren’t a ton of studies on this. But some research has found both endurance and strength athletes perform better when they eat more carbohydrates on days they train because it keeps glycogen stores optimal.(13)(14) That might sound obvious, but “short term overfeeding” combined with exercise might help to maintain thyroid and hormonal health as well.(15)(16)(17)
10. Reconsider bulking at all
- Some athletes may do better to cut weight first
“If you try to bulk up anyway, you’re going to find it nearly impossible to objectively evaluate whether the weight you are gaining is more muscle under your existing layer of fat or just more fat on top of what you’ve already got,” he writes. “That’s not a good look. So, instead, use this opportunity to get a head start on next summer’s prep by slowing beginning to drop some of that body fat. You’ll set yourself up for significantly better progress in the long term!”
There are also some other advantages to losing fat before bulking: less body fat means better insulin sensitivity, so you might find it easier to gain muscle and absorb nutrients once you’re lean.(18)(19) But hey, we’re not doctors, so chat with a physician or a sports nutritionist to work out what will be best for your sport.
Management of macronutrients, muscle gain, hunger, and satiety vary enormously from individual to individual and what works best for one athlete may not work for another. That’s why the most important pointers here are to ensure you’re getting enough micronutrients and to really closely monitor your energy balance (your calories and workouts) in a manner that will produce 0.2 to 0.5 pounds of muscle per week. Timing of nutrients and how you eat them is secondary — just remember to set realistic expectations.
1. Jensen J, et al. The role of skeletal muscle glycogen breakdown for regulation of insulin sensitivity by exercise. Front Physiol. 2011 Dec 30;2:112.
2. Fukagawa NK, et al. High-carbohydrate, high-fiber diets increase peripheral insulin sensitivity in healthy young and old adults. Am J Clin Nutr. 1990 Sep;52(3):524-8.
3. Wu Y, et al. Association between dietary fiber intake and risk of coronary heart disease: A meta-analysis. Clin Nutr. 2015 Aug;34(4):603-11.
4. Schley PD, et al. The immune-enhancing effects of dietary fibres and prebiotics. Br J Nutr. 2002 May;87 Suppl 2:S221-30.
5. Marciani L, et al. Preventing gastric sieving by blending a solid/water meal enhances satiation in healthy humans. J Nutr. 2012 Jul;142(7):1253-8.
6. Gil MI, et al. Quality changes and nutrient retention in fresh-cut versus whole fruits during storage. J Agric Food Chem. 2006 Jun 14;54(12):4284-96.
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10. Salgin B, et al. Effects of prolonged fasting and sustained lipolysis on insulin secretion and insulin sensitivity in normal subjects. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2009 Mar;296(3):E454-61.
11. Trepanowski JF, et al. Effect of Alternate-Day Fasting on Weight Loss, Weight Maintenance, and Cardioprotection Among Metabolically Healthy Obese Adults: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Intern Med. 2017 Jul 1;177(7):930-938.
12. Ohkawara K, et al. Effects of increased meal frequency on fat oxidation and perceived hunger. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2013 Feb;21(2):336-43.
13. Coyle EF. Timing and method of increased carbohydrate intake to cope with heavy training, competition and recovery. J Sports Sci. 1991 Summer;9 Spec No:29-51; discussion 51-2.
14. McConell G, et al. Effect of timing of carbohydrate ingestion on endurance exercise performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1996 Oct;28(10):1300-4.
15. Dirlewanger M, et al. Effects of short-term carbohydrate or fat overfeeding on energy expenditure and plasma leptin concentrations in healthy female subjects. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2000 Nov;24(11):1413-8.
16. Poehlman ET, et al. Genotype dependency of the thermic effect of a meal and associated hormonal changes following short-term overfeeding. Metabolism. 1986 Jan;35(1):30-6.
17. Morrison DJ, et al. Modest changes to glycemic regulation are sufficient to maintain glucose flux in healthy humans following overfeeding with a habitual macronutrient composition. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2019 Apr 9.
18. Buemann B, et al. Lower-body fat mass as an independent marker of insulin sensitivity–the role of adiponectin. Int J Obes (Lond). 2005 Jun;29(6):624-31.
19. Patel P, et al. Body fat distribution and insulin resistance. Nutrients. 2013 Jun 5;5(6):2019-27.