Bulking is a tricky thing – how do you bulk up and build muscle without just getting fat?
You need to know how to bulk up to make sure that you get the most from it. We’re going to explain what it’s for, how you do it, and the important lessons on how to do bulking!
There’s a fine art to bulking and it’s important to understand what it’s for, how you do it, and the lessons that go beyond just the science.
So, today we’re discussing what bulking is, who it’s for, and how you can make sure your bulk is healthy and effective.
Gaining Weight and Improving Muscle Mass
The whole point of bulking is setting aside time and effort to gain weight.
It’s a time where you’re going to be dedicated to weight gain and all of its effects.
The goal of a bulk is to gain muscle mass while gaining as little fat as possible. However, there is a common expectation of gaining both and the best way to approach it is that you’re trying to keep the ‘slider’ closer to muscle than fat.
This is a process that most athletes and bodybuilders will go through at some point. For many athletes it’s just called ‘off-season’, but its in bodybuilding where bulking and ‘cutting’ are common practice.
What is the Point of Bulking?
The premise is this: gain muscle and fat now, then cut the fat later (while trying to build/maintain more muscle), or simply build muscle without gaining fat.
Bulking without gaining fat is obviously the dream, but that’s very difficult. Committing yourself to gaining weight allows you to focus singularly on gaining weight. It’s a system that leaves no doubt about building muscle, while more gentle or nuanced approaches can easily lead to elusive weight change.
It’s easy to know you’re building muscle when you’re eating lots and seeing consistent increases on the scale.
This takes some of the guesswork and uncertainty out of gaining weight while providing serious gains in strength and muscle mass.
Bulking for Hard-Gainers:
Bulking is most important for the hard-gainer who has struggled to gain muscle mass. If you’ve struggled with muscle gains then a real bulk can be a real eye-opener and will completely change the physique.
Fortunately, these people don’t need to worry about bulking without gaining fat. They’re skinny and need size without worrying about a little bit of bodyfat.
Bulking is a period of time where you’re full-throttle for weight gain. No excuses, picky eating, or questionably approaches to training. It’s all about lifting lots of weight, eating lots of food, and getting big.
If you’re doing a bulk right, you’re going to gain weight. The science is clear – ectomorph or hardgainer – you’re going to gain mass when you’re in a calorie surplus with plenty of protein. This is also a great time to build weight-gain habits like proper meal composition, food scheduling, and how to control appetite for physique change.
Building Strength: Signaling Better Growth by Bulking
We’ve already hinted at it: bulking is a time when you focus on building strength and muscular work capacity.
You’re going to be eating a lot and those nutrients need to be directed towards an intense and progressive training plan. When you eat a lot, you can train a lot and stay healthy, using the extra nutrients to turn that hard work into muscle mass.
Training during a bulk should be higher in overall volume – the number of reps performed multiplied by the weight used. This tonnage should increase week to week or month to month, with the exception of recovery or ‘deload’ weeks.
This is how you force growth and it’s perfect for bulking where you can continue to progress sustainably. You’re not always going to be this well-fueled when bulking, you want to take full advantage of your new calorie, protein, and carb intake.
Types of Bulk: Terminology and Food Sources
Bulking is a common term, but it can get confusing when people use different terms. There are a few types of bulk that you need to be familiar with: lean, clean, and dirty.
These are all sub-types of the general bulking philosophy. If it’s just bulking then it’s what we’ve outlined above, but each of these named types of bulk has its own specifics.
Lean bulking is just a small bulk. You’re not eating tons of extra food and the idea is that this will reduce the amount of fat gained so that you don’t have to cut down tons of bodyfat later on.
This is usually used in athletes and those who are more advanced and want to stay close to a specific physique or bodyweight. It’s a slower, more patient approach that requires a very tight set of allowances on calories, thus a method to build muscle without gaining fat.
Clean bulks are similar to lean bulking, but they focus on food quality as well as calorie intake, to gain muscle without fat.
How to clean bulk? These are the diets you might see an elite bodybuilder using where their meals are still very “clean” – lots of chicken, rice, and vegetables. They forego the usual bulking approach of eating fattier, higher-calorie foods and just eat more.
Clean bulking is notoriously difficult to structure and stick with. The lack of food variety is a challenge for health and adherence, and you might need to eat 6 times a day to make it work. A successful clean bulk is a mythical creature – often talked about, rarely seen.
This is the easy answer to “how to bulk” – eat everything.
Dirty bulking is the opposite of the clean bulk. It’s the dream: eating lots of calories and protein and not worrying about anything else.
These are the diets that a lot of hardgainers could probably benefit from – especially those who are over-concerned with food sources. These diets will often just approach food with an “eat more” attitude and regulate themselves along the body’s natural fullness signalling.
Dirty bulks are controversial since many of the “if it fits your macros” (IIFYM) diets rely on foods considered unhealthy by most people. They’re effective for gaining weight but may involve choosing sketchy foods like burgers and pizza to gain weight.
Do you Need to Bulk?
Most people do not need to bulk regularly.
There are often more effective long-term ways of controlling weight gain with a consistent and gentle change to bodyweight. Lean bulking is a simple term for this kind of weight change, if we’re talking terminology.
The classic or dirty bulk just isn’t required for most people and the gaining of serious weight shouldn’t be something we rush. Muscle can only be built so quickly and it’s important to respect the time that the body needs to adapt to demands and feeding patterns.
You might be able to gain 10kg in a few months, but it’s not likely to be high-quality weight and it does put a strain on the body. Sustained periods of over-feeding need to be managed and semi-regular calorie restriction is actually good for health.
When is Bulking a Smart Choice?
On the other hand, people experiencing a stubborn low bodyweight and looking for weight gain can benefit from a bulk.
If you’re weak and small and you’re fed up with it, bulking is the classic answer. It does ensure weight gain and provide certainty in changes to the physique that can help hardgainers build muscle and improve self-perception.
Bulking is obviously a much more reasonable strategy for a skinny 19-year-old than someone who is already overweight and/or older. Bulking is about solving the problem of underweight or undereating, wherever possible, as well as improving strength and muscle mass.
Obviously, that also applies to changes in weight for sport and performance reasons. You’re going to need to bulk if you’re changing weight categories or moving into a sport where size is a real benefit (like shotput or American Football).
Your Needs: Bulking Depends on the Individual
The important thing is to figure out if bulking is right for you, and how to gain muscle without gaining fat.
We say it all the time, but weight change and clean bulking diet need to be relative to your own needs and goals.
Bulking isn’t healthy or the right choice if it compromises your health – such as if you’re bulking to obesity and huge bodyfat percentages. Equally, it’s not clear that bulking is unhealthy at all, if it’s performed properly with a high quality of foods and smart planning.
The real question is who is bulking. If you’re the kind of person that is desperately looking to gain weight then it can be the right choice – even dirty bulking might be better than staying underweight or being mentally unhealthy about body image.
It can overcome frustrations about gaining weight, it is a clear way of changing physique, and it initiates you to eating habits that will be important in the long-term.
You don’t need to be afraid of eating more than you’re using and it can be a really fun and fulfilling experience to watch muscle build and see your personal bests rise for weeks or months at a time.
Look at where you’re starting: what does your body need? Are you able to stay healthy while adding a few % bodyfat? Are you ready for the effort of eating that much? These are what matter!
How to Bulk Up Properly
We’ve talked about how to gain weight before, so we’re going to quickly cover the basics – then talk about how to bulk up and build muscle specifically.
Eat more than you use: figure out your TDEE and then go over by 250-800 calories
This is the basic idea, and then you have to look at the macronutrient composition of foods. More protein is great for improving performance and building muscle, while carbs provide energy for recovery and growth.
Track your energy intake with an app or website to get a better idea of what your day of eating looks like, keep yourself accountable, and make sure you are eating the calories you think you are. It also helps you tweak in response to changes in the body while you’re bulking.
Watch the Scale and Follow the Effects of your Diet
Your bulk needs to be deliberate, whatever approach you’re taking.
Low-quality bulking happens when we don’t pay attention to the habits that go into weight gain or ignore the scales.
You want to eat enough to gain weight slowly and sustainably in order to gain muscle without fat. Even when you’re hard bulking with 500-800 calories over your TDEE, you need to make sure this corresponds to the amount of weight you’re trying to gain (usually around 0.5 – 1 pound per week, or 0.25 – 0.5 kg).
If you’re not gaining weight for 2-3 weeks in a row, you need to increase your overall food intake, for example.
Protein: More Food Means More Macronutrients
Your first priority is protein – it’s the foundation for the weight you’re trying to gain (muscle).
Lower-protein diets fall short of the muscle gains that high-protein diets offer. When we look at the balance of muscle- and fat-gain, higher protein clean bulking diets shift you towards muscle while low protein diets shift you towards fat gain.
Protein should be the centerpiece of most weight gain meals and should be second only to calories when it comes to tracking food intake. Prioritize protein and you’ll see better results.
Carb Control and Feeding for Strength: Signaling for better growth
Carbs should be the main source of calories for a bulk since they provide short- to mid-term energy. They’re directly related to mTOR activation which is the primary system for building muscle mass.
They’re also a great way of improving your exercise performance where carb-feeding in the 24 hours before exercise help boost intense exercise results. Most meals should be built around carbs and proteins, with fats being selected for quality rather than quantity.
Carbs are the main controlling factor between a cutting down and bulking up. Proteins and fats have an essential role aside from energy, while carbs do not. Use carb quantity to change between a weight-gain, maintenance, and weight-loss diet.
Progressive overload: Don’t Get Fat for Nothing
Getting the most from a bulk requires you to actively push yourself in the gym.
You can recover from more – and get better progress – during a bulk. You need to focus on progressive overload during a bulk, even more than normal.
This is the process of increasing your weight, reps, or complexity in training to drive muscle growth (as well as tendon and bone strengthening). If you’re underestimating yourself or not trying hard enough, your bulk will drive less muscle and strength gains.
Hard workouts produce hard weight gain (muscle) rather than squidgy weight gain (fat).
Micronutrients: Food Quality as well as Quantity
Just because you’re focusing on calories, don’t ignore the importance of vitamins and minerals in your diet.
They’re crucial parts of how your body works and you should still make sure that you’re getting all the high-quality nutrient-dense foods you’d normally aim for.
High calorie fruits and vegetables should be all over a clean bulking diet as a way of maintaining health and metabolic/hormonal regularity.
Have a Plan with Bulking, Maintenance, and Cutting Phases
How to bulk without gaining fat or losing momentum? Have a plan!
A bulk can be fatiguing in the long-term and it needs to be balanced up with periods of maintenance or cutting. When we stay bulking for long periods of time we can harm the body or become desensitised to weight gain.
Bulking shouldn’t continue by itself for more than a few months at a time. Even hardgainers need to take a break. Bulking should take 2-5 months at a time, followed by a month of maintenance where the focus is on eating for quality and improving overall dietary habits.
You don’t always need to be focusing on weight and there’s more to diet than just weight gain/loss. Especially when you reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of your dietary habits – we all have areas where quality and discipline can be worked on, instead of just weight.
Give yourself a timeline for your bulk. Focus on efficient bulking rather than just doing more of it. It’s this urgency and sense of time-restriction that will help you drive better progress in the short-term and maintain better health in the long-term!
Our Final Thoughts: Should You Be Bulking Up?
Bulking can be a great way of getting over hurdles and frustrations from being smaller than you’d like. It’s important for some hardgainers but it also represents a challenge of its own in eating more and pushing the pace in training to make the most of a period of heavy eating.
Bulking isn’t for everyone but it’s a time-honored tradition for gaining muscle mass and can offer a rapid return on effort.
It’s nice to see change when you change your lifestyle and bulking-cutting cycles are a proven way of making that happen – as well as being really fun (usually).
If you are looking for how to bulk up, be smart about bulking and make sure it lines up with your goals. It can be easy to overdo it, but getting it right means high-quality weight gain and tons of improvements in the gym!
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Rohan Arora is a Certified Personal Trainer and Sports Nutritionist and has been actively involved in sports and fitness for over 8 years. He now leads the team of fitness specialists and personal trainers who help people around the world with personalized workout and nutrition plans, along with providing the right information on sports supplements.