Nutrition for Bulking — 10 Tips for Intelligent Muscle Gain

If you want to gain quality muscle, there's more to it than bowls of cereal for dessert.

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Bulking might seem like a simple concept from a nutrition standpoint: You have to eat lots of food and lift heavy weights, and you’ll be able to put on as much muscle as you want, right? At least that’s how those “What I Eat in a Day” YouTube videos make it seem. As it turns out, nothing could be further from the truth. 

Proper nutrition is just as vital as bulking as it is for losing weight, if not more so. If your calories or macronutrients are off, even by a little bit, you could find yourself putting on a winter coat of fat rather than packing on quality muscle

Man measuring biceps muscle
Mark Nazh/Shutterstock

Whether you’re bulking to look bigger, or perhaps gain some strength, lean bulking is a complicated topic. Luckily, we’ve tapped some experts who know a thing or two about it to cover some of the most common mistakes you should avoid on your road to gains.  Here are 10 tips for optimizing your bulking phase. 

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. Speak with your physician before undertaking any weight loss regimen.

Avoid the “See Food” Diet

Yes, the quantity of your food is what will get you results, but the quality of what you eat will determine how easy that journey is. Foods are filled with micronutrients, phytochemicals, and antioxidants that facilitate bodily reactions from reducing inflammation and letting your brain know that your stomach is full. (1)

Here’s an example. Let’s say you need an extra 500 calories at the end of the night. You could surely go for a pint of ice cream, but you might be better off chomping on some whole wheat pasta and lean protein. That’s because the ice cream (even the diet-friendly variety) will take up space in your stomach. In contrast, the latter option is filled with nutrients that help insulin sensitivity, aid digestion, and improve everything from your hair to eyesight. 

“Bulking needs to come from the foundation of a nutrient-dense whole food diet,” says registered dietitian Sylvia North, MS, RD. “When we are bulking and working to make a whole lot of new muscle cells, growth takes not only metabolic energy and protein, and 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. In addition to vitamins and minerals, we need antioxidants and phytochemicals to help with recovery and reduce joint pain, nutrients that are seldom found in your standard multivitamin or snack cake. When bulking plans allow for it — and there are plenty who never do — a limit of 10 percent of your calories from junk is often set.

Of course, that’s contingent on whatever your goals are. 2017 World’s Strongest Man Eddie Hall notoriously ate a family-sized cheesecake for a snack every day, but then again, he wasn’t competing to step on the Mr. Olympia stage.

Make Sure You Actually Eat Enough

Bulking newcomers may feel their caloric goals are too high and might end up not eating enough to put on the weight they’re looking for. You’ll typically want to eat an additional 200-400 calories per day from your maintenance levels — but again, that number could be higher or lower depending on what it is you’re looking to achieve. (2)

If you’ve never monitored your calories or macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fats) before, it can seem like a ludicrous amount of food. 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 diving into a heaping pile of rice and chicken after you’ve already had dinner. 

On that note…

Don’t Avoid Carbohydrates

Even if you prefer high-fat diets, carbohydrates can help you bulk without packing on excess body fat. Whether you perform better with more carbs or more fat is based on your body, but carbs should still prioritize multiple reasons.

For one, carbs cause insulin spikes, which help send glycogen to your muscles and helps make you look fuller. 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. (3

Now that’s music to the ears of those on a bulk. 

Eat Fiber, But Not Too Much

While fiber is necessary to overall health — the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends men eat 38 grams per day, and women 25 — and preventing hunger pangs, eating too much can cause intestinal pain, constipation, or loose stool, and…well, you know the other consequence. 

Again, you shouldn’t avoid fiber. It digests slowly, helps keep you satiated, and maintains insulin sensitivity and a healthy balance of gut bacteria, which in turn can lead to a better immune system. (4)(5)(6)

But it’s a concern for bulkers because fiber is found in carbohydrates, and you need plenty of carbs on a bulking plan. So when you’re trying to consume 300, 400, or even 500 (or more) grams of carbs per day, there’s a good chance the fiber in them will make you too full of wanting to eat more calories. 

Hit your recommended daily intake but don’t forget the magic of strategically timed white rice, fruit juice, or even carbohydrate supplements — these foods help you hit your carb intake goal sans the fiber.

Supplement Intelligently

Ideally, all your nutrients should come from whole foods, but when you’re eating a lot of amount of calories, you might need to supplement with…well, supplements. But that doesn’t mean you should buy out the entire store. 

Try to stay away from products like testosterone boosters, growth hormone boosters, muscle volumizers, and so on. These types of supplements should be prescribed only by a professional.

Instead, stick with the tried-and-true muscle-building supplements: creatine and protein powder. Both have been extensively researched and vetted by industry professionals. But let’s take a minute to dive a little deeper into each. 

Protein Powder 

When shopping for a protein powder, look for an amino acid profile — amino acids help make up protein molecules. Each amino acid plays a different role in muscle development and bodily functions. If a powder has low amino acid concentrations, it’s probably not worth buying.

Also, be aware of any protein powder with added sugars — while it may help the shake taste better, it only adds extra calories that won’t help you build muscle.

One more note: some protein powders contain heavy metals that, in large doses, can be toxic to humans. To find out if your favorite protein powder is on the list, visit cleanlabelproject.org. (7)

Try to find one that has at least 20 grams of protein per serving. 

Creatine

Creatine helps the body create adenosine triphosphate — the body’s preferred energy source — to help you perform better and improve muscle contractions. It also helps increase lean muscle mass and strength and optimize muscle recovery more quickly after an intense workout session.

Its effectiveness is endorsed by bodybuilders and athletes everywhere and by the International Society of Sports Nutrition. “Creatine monohydrate is the most effective ergogenic nutritional supplement currently available to athletes with the intent of increasing high-intensity exercise capacity and lean body mass during training,” the organization wrote in its official journal. (8)

Aim for three to five grams per serving. 

If You Can’t Eat ‘Em, Drink ‘Em

Blending food is an underrated way to consume more calories from whole foods, especially if you’re struggling with feelings of overwhelming fullness. Consider replacing one meal a day with a calorie-dense shake. 

Meal replacement shakes can be great, so long as they’re made from whole food sources and don’t contain excess sugar, 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. However, the 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). (9)

If you choose to do this, some people might claim that blending fruits destroys the nutrition of whole foods. While it’s true that cutting or blending fruit and then not consuming it immediately can cause it to lose some Vitamin C, it won’t lose that much, according to research published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry that found leaving cut fruits for nine days in a fridge only caused them to lose between 10 and 25 percent of their Vitamin C. (10)

Reconsider Intermittent Fasting

Intermittent fasting is one of the best and most popular fat loss strategies, but if you’re looking to put on weight, you should probably avoid it simply because it will be challenging to fit 2,500-3,000 calories (or more) in a short time window. That’s not to say it can’t be done, as followers of the One Meal a Day diet can attest — it’s just going to require Joey Chestnut levels of chewing. 

One possible pro to intermittent fasting while bulking is that it’s been shown to reduce feelings of hunger. (11)

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.

Set a Realistic Goal

You can’t gain more than 0.5 pounds of muscle a week — no matter how much you eat or how hard you train — and more advanced lifters would be lucky to gain half a pound of muscle in a month. Any excess weight will most likely come from fat and not muscle. 

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 10 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, and meals should be prepped. (In that way) the process needs to be the same as if you were cutting,” says powerlifter, physical therapist, and world-record holder Dr. Stefi Cohen. “You should figure out maintenance level calories, then you very slowly increase your intake five to 10 grams here, five to 10 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.”

Consider Calorie and Carb Cycling

Try to eat more calories and carbs on training days than during your 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 most optimally, there’s a strong argument to be made for calorie cycling. 

Research has found that endurance and strength athletes perform better when they eat more carbohydrates on days they train because it keeps glycogen stores optimal. “short term overfeeding” combined with exercise might help maintain thyroid and hormonal health. (12)(13)(14)

Eat more when you’re training. It’ll probably get you stronger and help you train harder than you would otherwise, and that means more muscle.

Maybe Don’t Bulk at All

Here’s a plot twist: Maybe you shouldn’t bulk at all. 

In his article on winter bulking, Dr. Ben Pollack gave a tough pill to swallow: If you already have a lot of body fat, it may not be the best idea to bulk.

“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 slowly 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. (15)(16) Also, if you’ve got a fair amount of body fat, you’ll look more muscular after trimming down than when you started. 

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.

Final Word

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 — remember to set realistic expectations.

References

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  2. Leaf A, Antonio J. The Effects of Overfeeding on Body Composition: The Role of Macronutrient Composition – A Narrative Review. Int J Exerc Sci. 2017;10(8):1275-1296. Published 2017 Dec 1.
  3. Jensen J, Rustad PI, Kolnes AJ, Lai YC. The role of skeletal muscle glycogen breakdown for regulation of insulin sensitivity by exercise. Front Physiol. 2011 Dec 30;2:112. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2011.00112. PMID: 22232606; PMCID: PMC3248697.
  4. Schley PD, Field CJ. The immune-enhancing effects of dietary fibres and prebiotics. Br J Nutr. 2002 May;87 Suppl 2:S221-30. doi: 10.1079/BJNBJN/2002541. PMID: 12088522.
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  6. Fukagawa NK, Anderson JW, Hageman G, Young VR, Minaker KL. 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. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/52.3.524. PMID: 2168124.
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