Winter Bulking Made Easy: 3 Strategies for Big Gains

Well, it’s wintertime, and that means it’s time to put the tees and tanks away, pull out the winter coats and heavy sweatpants, and start thinking about the holidays. It’s also time to start making gains! There’s no better opportunity than Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner to put away some quality food, and hey — if you’re all bundled up anyway, who cares if your perfect eight-pack abs go into hibernation for a couple of months?

In all seriousness, there’s a reason for the stereotypical winter bulk: at some point in your training, if you want to add a whole lot of muscle and strength, you’re going to have to add a little fat to go along with it. There’s no way around that. Yes, you can take the “lean gains” approach, but that’s a long, slow road, and most people want to see quicker progress. So, when the weather prohibits hanging outside by the pool or down at the beach (meaning there’s no compelling reason to try to stay lean) it’s the perfect opportunity to pack on some fast mass.

While bulking sounds pretty simple (and fun) — just eat more — depending on your goals, you may need a pretty detailed training or diet plan. Everyone wants to go the hardcore bulking route…until they actually try it. After a couple of days of force-feeding, you’re ready to go back on your diet!

So, there are clearly tradeoffs to be made. Here’s how to make ‘em.

Scenario 1: You want to bulk up, but you struggle to gain weight.

This is probably the most common gripe I hear from lifters who come to me for advice: “no matter how much I eat, I can’t gain weight!” First: I hear you. Man, for the first decade of my lifting career, I struggled to put on even a pound or two of lean mass. I could pack away five or six thousand calories a day for what seemed like months on end, only to see the scale refuse to budge.

Eventually, I just got sick of playing the game, and decided to give up the hardcore bulking mentality. A few years after that, in my late 20s, my metabolism finally began to slow down a little bit, and I found I was able to add quality muscle much, much more easily.

If you don’t want to wait that long, you’ve got a tradeoff to make: are you willing to eat uncomfortable amounts of food, day in and day out, for months or even years in order to get big? Because that’s what you’re going to have to do. You can make it easier, with the strategies below, but there’s no way around the need for a high caloric intake. On the bright side, with your blazing metabolism, it’s very unlikely that you’ll have to worry about holding on to too much body fat!

Strategies for the hard gainer:

  • Choose calorically dense foods, like higher-fat cuts of meat and starchy vegetables.
  • Pay attention to your digestion. Don’t be afraid to use white rice or potatoes if your body responds well to them, and make sure to use a digestive enzyme and/or probiotics.
  • Consider the use of supplements with regard to appetite. Remember, stimulants like caffeine can make it harder to eat!

Scenario 2: You’ve been dieting all summer, and you’re ready to grow, but you don’t want to get fat.

This one is perhaps equally common: you’re coming off a long, hard diet, and you don’t want to waste all that work — but you also don’t want to keep dieting! What do you do?

One approach is the “reverse dieting” strategy: adding very small amounts of calories to your diet every week, assuming that the gradual increases in caloric intake will be offset by harder, heavier training and improvements in your metabolism (which probably slowed down during your diet). This way, you can very slowly add muscle without adding any fat.

It sounds good in theory, but in practice, there’s two major problems. First, most people want to make progress faster than what is possible with reverse dieting. Second, if you’re reverse dieting…you’re still dieting! Trust me, adding 50 or 100 calories to an already restricted intake won’t give you a whole lot of relief, physically or mentally.

So, there’s a tradeoff to be made: how much fat are you willing to accept in return for the ability to eat more and build muscle? This is, of course, a question that only you can answer. And, to some degree, you can offset any potential fat gains by using the strategies below. But ultimately, adding a little fat is unavoidable. And it’s a good thing. You’ll have more energy, your body will feel more resilient to injury, and you’ll be able to lift heavier weights with a slightly higher body fat percentage.

Strategies for minimizing fat gain during a bulk:

  • Monitor your body weight and body fat percentage regularly. This way, when you’re starting to approach a level where you feel uncomfortable, you can back off — rather than feeling surprised when you step on the scale and realize you’re twenty pounds heavier than you expected.
  • Continue to use cardio, strategically. Fifteen to 20 minutes of low-intensity, steady-state cardio can keep your metabolism chugging along and keep you feeling lean even while you’re eating big.
  • Don’t go overboard with the caloric increase. While adding 50 or 100 calories a day might not be enough, adding 1500 might will be too many. Try to find a middle ground here — I find an increase of about 10% over your current intake is a good place to start.

Scenario 3: You want to bulk up, but you’re already carrying a good amount of fat.

I run into this one a fair amount, too, and if you fall into this category, I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is that your situation is pretty clear-cut. The bad news is that you need to diet, not bulk.

Here’s the deal: if you’re already carrying a good amount of body fat, chances are, that fat is obscuring some muscle — but not nearly as much muscle as you think. And 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. 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!

Got your own bulking strategies or secrets? Share them in the comments?

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Feature image from @phdeadlift Instagram page. 

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