Before we get into the specifics on how to bulk, let me first explain what exactly “Bulking” is. Bulking is a term in the fitness industry referring to an increase in an individual’s muscle mass (and some fat) by combining weight lifting with a caloric surplus. There is also a term called “Dirty Bulking” in the industry. This has the same goal, except that the individual would eat any food they want–no matter how much and how unhealthy. Along with muscle gain, this usually results in a greater gain in fat mass compared to a normal bulk.

In this article, I am going to discuss how to properly bulk. My approach is to gain the most muscle possible with the least fat gain. This will cover weight training, nutrition around workout, cardio, calorie needs, types of food, and what to expect based on your current training experience.

Weight Training:

The whole purpose of bulking is for strength and muscle gains; and the best way to achieve this is through weight training. My approach to weight training for a bulk is a pretty standard linear periodization. If you don’t know what linear periodization is, it is a training plan that gradually increases intensity and decreases volume every week or so. A great workout plan to follow is Lyle McDonald’s General Bulking Routine pictured below:

The image above shows the general overview of the exercises in the training plan. In his routine he would perform the Lower Body workout on Mondays & Thursdays and Upper Body on Tuesdays & Fridays. For the first 4 weeks, you should aim for an increase of 5% each week. For weeks 5-8, look to add 2.5-5 lbs on larger movements and 1-2.5 lbs on smaller movements.

Nutrition around workout:

To get the most out of your workout, you need to be in the most anabolic state to train and recover. To achieve this, nutrition around your workout is required. There’s pre-workout, during-workout, and post-workout. Having all 3 aren’t exactly needed, so I’ll cover the importance of each.

Pre-Workout Nutrition

The purpose for a pre-workout meal is to optimize performance by ensuring optimal levels of liver glycogen, blood glucose, and provide amino acids during training. For a proper pre-workout, a meal should be consumed 1-4 hrs prior to training, and any drinks should be consumed ~30 minutes before training. The larger the meal, the longer you should wait to train. This is simply to avoid an upset stomach and allow for adequate digestion.

Also, the closer you eat your meals to your training, the less dietary fat and fiber you should eat; this also deals with digestion. So, pre-workout meals should be primarily made up of protein and carbohydrates. Protein sources should be primarily whey/animal sources. Carbohydrate sources should be primarily glucose, dextrose, or sucrose–think starchy carbs like rice and pasta. For immediate pre-workout nutrition, try to stay away from fructose, this is the fruit sugar. Fructose is digested slower, only refills liver glycogen, and has little impact on insulin. According to the research, this is what your carbohydrate intake should be prior to your workout:

• For meals 3-4 hrs before training we’re looking at 3.0-4.5g/kg (1.5-2g/lb) of carbohydrates

• For meals 1-2 hrs before training 1.1-2.2g/kg (0.5-1.0g/lb) of carbohydrates is adequate

• For immediate pre-workout nutrition (~30 minutes), 0.3-0.5g/kg (0.15-0.22g/lb) of carbohydrates

For immediate pre-workout nutrition, aim for 0.3-0.5g/kg (0.15-0.22g/lb) of protein. For meals further away from training, you should have that amount of protein at minimum. Also, for immediate pre-workout nutrition, you can substitute an essential amino acid (EAA) supplement in place of protein. The value for this would be half as much, or 0.15-0.25g/kg (0.07-0.12 g/lb).

One more thing you can add to this phase is caffeine. Doses of 3-6mg/kg (1.5-2.7mg/lb) of body mass has been shown to improve exercise performance. Not only will this increase your lifts, but it will generate more muscle hypertrophy, endurance, and strength over time.

Increased performance = Increased results

During-Workout Nutrition

This phase should always be consumed in liquid form to allow for the quickest digestion possible. The purpose of this phase is to benefit performance. Research has shown that intaking carbohydrates can achieve adequate blood glucose levels and maintain optimal hydration. More research has also found that carbohydrates during training limits muscle glycogen depletion, keeps insulin higher, and reduces cortisol levels. This improves recovery and leads to more skeletal muscle gains in the long-term. For additional benefit, several studies have shown that adding protein to the carbohydrates during training decreases protein breakdown and muscle damage—improving performance in training.

Since the purpose of bulking is to gain strength and hypertrophy, long rest periods are used for heavy compound movements like squats or deadlifts. Because of this, most lifters tend to get blood sugar crashes from quickly digested carbs such as dextrose or glucose. To combat this, using slower digested carbs like fructose or sucrose (which is 50% glucose 50% fructose) should be added. So, using a combination of dextrose, glucose, and fructose during training is optimal. An example of this is Gatorade and Powerade. These drinks also include sodium and potassium for hydration benefits. The protein should also be a rapidly digested protein like whey. The whey can be added to the carbs and be sipped on in-between sets of your workout. In terms of amount, this is what it looks like:

• Protein: 12-15g/hour from Whey protein

• Carbohydrate: 30-45g/hour from dextrose or sucrose (Gatorade/Powerade)

Post-Workout Nutrition

This phase comes within 1-2 hours after training. The benefits of the post-workout nutrition covers glycogen resynthesis, protein synthesis, recovery, adaptations to training, and increased subsequent workout performance.

The significance of post-workout nutrition is not as important as what was previously believed—especially the “window of opportunity”. As long as pre-workout nutrition is consumed, a post-workout doesn’t matter as much in terms of immediate consumption because of the already present amino acids in your system. Especially during bulking, a normal meal a couple hours post-workout can be sufficient. In fact, pre-workout protein actually outperforms post-workout protein. This is because whey protein (or similar fast digesting proteins) takes at least 30 minutes to even start releasing amino acids and lasts for around 2 more hours. Not even taking into account digestion speed. So, the protein from your pre-workout meal will still be releasing amino acids when you’re finished with your workout.

When you think of glycogen, think of carbohydrates. Ingested carbohydrates turn into glycogen in your body. Glycogen is stored in both your muscles and your liver—muscles storing substantially more. For a post-workout, you are aiming to achieve the proper nutrition to repair and grow your muscles from the training you just completed. Glycogen resynthesis is maintaining optimal muscle glycogen levels to achieve top performance and metabolism of food digested to maximize effectiveness. The importance of glycogen covers impacts on protein breakdown, protein synthesis, performance, and metabolism.

Along with carbohydrates, protein also fills muscle glycogen. This means that for a post-workout, protein and carbohydrates should be your main focus for your food source. In fact, when adding to protein to carbohydrates post-workout, it actually increases both glycogen storage synthesis and glycogen storage.

In terms of what type of protein, both fast and slow digesting should be consumed in this phase (whey & casein). Research has shown that slow digesting protein combined with fast digesting protein outperforms fast digesting protein alone. This is because the fast digesting protein releases a larger amount of amino acids quicker, but does not last as long. The slow digesting protein keeps a constant rate of amino acid release—much longer than the fast digesting proteins. This prevents protein breakdown. For the overall picture, fast digesting proteins are anabolic, while slow digesting proteins are anti-catabolic. So, when combining the large spike with a longer consistent release, it outperforms just a large spike. The graphic below gives a good visual.

For carbohydrates, faster digesting carbs will be more beneficial post-workout. Carbs such as glucose, dextrose, and maltodextrin should be consumed here. A little fructose can also be consumed here to refill liver glycogen. To transfer this to whole foods, some examples are rice, bread, and pasta. You want fast digesting carbs for glycogen resynthesis. These starchy carbs also go towards muscle glycogen rather than liver glycogen to make your muscles more “full”.

For your post-workout meal, my recommendation would be to consume your protein in the liquid form and consume your carbs from foods around 1-2 hours after training. I’ll cover the amounts later, but an example for your post-workout protein would be a scoop of whey with around a cup of whole milk. Whole milk works superior to fat free and soy milk, but researchers aren’t exactly sure why. The reason could deal with whole milk being digested slower compared to the others. For your carbohydrates in your post-workout meal, I recommend eating some starchy carbs like rice, bread, and pasta. The amounts of each look like this:

• Protein: 0.3-0.5g/kg (0.14-0.22g/lb) Whey & casein protein

• Carbohydrate: 0.3-1.5g/kg (0.14-0.7g/lb) Glucose polymers (rice, bread, pasta)

I’d also like to add that 5g of creatine monohydrate can be taken during this meal. Although the difference is small, creatine has been shown to be better consumed post-workout than pre-workout.

Cardio:

The benefits of cardio include:

• Improved recovery

• Appetite

• Improved Calorie Partitioning

• Keeps fat burning pathways active

Improved Recovery

Low to moderate cardio acts as a form of active recovery by supplying blood to your muscles. Especially when bulking, you are increasing weight in your lower body dominant exercises (squats, deadlifts, etc.). And since cardio is leg dominant, this will help your legs recover better than just taking rest days. Active recovery has been shown to be superior to passive recovery—which is just laying around.

Appetite

If you are one of those people who struggle to get all your calories in, then low to moderate intensity cardio is great for you. Unlike high intensity cardio that seems to blunt hunger, low to moderate intensity cardio shows to stimulate appetite. The reasons lie in both physio- and psychological aspects. Just make sure to eat more calories than you burned in your cardio session.

Improved Calorie Partitioning

Calorie partitioning is where your ingested calories go towards. In a perfect bulk, all over-eaten calories will go towards muscle and none to your fat cells. Then vice versa for when you’re dieting down. All of this is genetic (body fat percentage, testosterone, thyroid, insulin sensitivity, etc.), but dieting and training can have a slight impact. The benefits behind cardio is the increase of nutrient uptake in your skeletal muscles–which moves calories to muscle cells rather than fat cells.

Keeps Fat Burning Pathways Active

Besides offsetting fat gain during a bulk from a total caloric intake view, cardio can actually help people who lose the ability to use fat for fuel. This usually happens because their body will use almost all their energy from the carbohydrates they eat. However, since carbohydrates will result in a better bulk because of it’s effects on hormones and glycogen resynthesis, they should not be cut out or lowered. This is why cardio should be used during a bulk.

Type and Amount

I recommend low to moderate intensity cardio for at least 3 times per week. A schedule could be Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. Doing your cardio on machines like an airbike or elliptical may be more beneficial and less taxing on your legs than jogging. Anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour is fine for your sessions. This will usually burn around 300-400 calories for most people.

One more thing I’d like to add is the during-workout nutrition. The same carb & whey drink can be sipped here to increase blood flow to muscles and nutrient recovery.

Calorie Needs and What to Expect

The question people always ask is, “How many more calories do I need to build muscle?”, or something along those lines. Before we get into the amounts, let’s go over what exactly your muscles are made of. If you break down a pound of muscle for energy, you’ll get around 600 calories. In this pound of muscle, you have ~125g of protein, water, glycogen, intramuscluar triglyceride, and cellular machinery.

Now this doesn’t mean that you need to eat a caloric surplus of 600 calories to gain pure muscle, or that you should increase your protein intake by 125g–that’s not how your body works. This is mostly due to calorie partitioning, which I covered earlier. In fact, every 5-8g of dietary protein provides ~1 gram of protein per day.

Exactly how many calories do you need to build a pound of muscle? We don’t know, but it’s a surplus of somewhere around 2,400-2,700 calories. This is where calorie partitioning also comes in to play, nobody will get every calorie of a surplus to go straight to muscle (genetics and performance enhancing drugs help a lot), so we’ll raise this number to 3,500 calories. This will result in a slight fat gain but also ensure that you’re getting enough calories to assume you’re going to build a pound of muscle.

Before we get into how many calories you need to eat, we need to look at the maximal muscular gains a person can achieve. Lyle McDonald, Alan Aragon, and Eric Helms all have similar models for this. Here’s what they’ve come up with:

• Beginner (<2 yrs of training)
  • 1.5lbs/month
• Intermediate (2-3 yrs of training)
  • 1 lb/month
• Advanced (>3 yrs of training)
  • 0.5 lbs/month

Numbers will be around half this amount for women

From this, we can calculate how much of a monthly surplus each category needs:

Beginner: +5,250 calories/month

Intermediate: +3,500 calories/month

Advanced: +1,750 calories/month

Then from this, we can find the daily surplus for each category:

Beginner: +175 calories/day

Intermediate: +120 calories/day

Advanced: +60 calories/day

This is what the numbers work out to if you want to gain minimal fat during a bulk. As you can see, advanced lifters have very little to work with–60 calories could be a measurement error in most foods. Keep in mind, you could increase calories to maybe gain a 1/4 lb more muscle per month, but it will result in more fat gain. Then that 1/4 lb of additional muscle will most likely be lost when you diet down to lose the fat, so there’s no real benefit. A study looked at this and found that after ~10 weeks, the group that ate significantly more calories gained 1 lb more muscle, but also gained >2 lbs extra fat.

Now that you know how much of a surplus you need, you need to know what your maintenance calories are. Maintenance calories are the amount of calories your body needs to stay the same weight every day. Maintenance calories are configured by sex, age, height, weight, bodyfat percentage, and activity level.

Use this calculator to find your maintenance calories.

Here’s an example of an intermediate male lifter that is 20 yrs old, 6 ft tall, 175 lb with 12% bodyfat. His activity level is also “Active” (according to the calculator).

• Maintenance calories: 2,912 calories

• Bulking calories: 3,032 calories

For the hardgainers that can’t seem to gain weight, you might have to increase your calories. Adding an additional 100-200 calories per day could put you in the right range. Hardgainers exist because they either overestimate their caloric intake or underestimate their activity level–but probably both. Another thing people tend to do when they increase calories is they increase their Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT). I’ll go into more detail about this in another article, but it’s basically burning off the extra calories by moving around more.

Another question a lot of people ask is if they can only add calories on their training days. Meaning they would eat at maintenance for every day except Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. While you could do this, it probably won’t lead to the same results. This mostly has to do with how protein synthesis works–peaking around 24 hours later. So, eating in a surplus everyday will probably produce better results

Types of Food

Lastly, I’ll cover what foods you should be eating during a bulk. To keep it simple, here’s what each source of your macros should consist:

• Protein:

-Animal Sources (Chicken, fish, turkey, lean red meats, whey & casein protein)

• Carbohydrates:

-Glucose/Glucose Polymers (bread, pasta, rice)

-Eat as many veggies as you can (broccoli, spinach, etc.)

• Fats:

-Monounsaturated: These fats are usually found in liquid form (Olive oil)

-Saturated: These fats should come from the animal sources you’re eating for your protein (beef)

  • Polyunsaturated: These fats should be mainly Omega 3 fats from fish (salmon) or flax seed oil.
  • I also highly recommend taking 6 standard fish oil pills per day

Because fats don’t supply immediate energy or glycogen for muscle gain like carbs, I recommend approaching your bulk with high protein and carbs with low fat. Your caloric intake could look like this:

• Protein: 2.5-3.0g/kg (1.1-1.4g/lb)

• Carbohydrates: 4.0-6.0g/kg (1.8-2.7g/lb)

• Fats: 0.8-1.1g/kg (0.4-0.5g/lb)

The reason we want some fat in our diet is for 2 things:

  1. To add some flavor to your food and make your diet adherable
  2. For bulking benefits including calorie partitioning, and a million health benefits—literally.

Polyunsaturated fats are considered essential fatty acids. This is because your body doesn’t make these fats, so you need them in your diet.

One more thing to add is hydration. Aim for at least 5 clear pees per day. At just 2% dehydration, performance is impaired, and 5% dehydration impairs performance by 30%. So, drink up.

Also, hydration doesn’t necessarily mean water. Milk has been shown to be far superior when it comes to hydration due to its sodium and potassium content.

Lastly, I don’t recommend bulking for anyone above 15% bodyfat. The muscle gains won’t be worth it when you had an unnecessary amount of fat to lose in the first place (unless you’re going for sheer strength aka powerlifting). Excess bodyfat will also hinder the efficacy of muscle growth during a bulk. The calories will go more towards fat cells.

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