I want people to realize bodybuilders are athletes. We have a very meticulous philosophy on how we are able to gain muscle and lose fat simultaneously.
Bulking is the process of building new muscle mass through a combination of training and nutrition. It’s empowering and rewarding, but it can be daunting if you’ve never done it before.
In order to arm you with the knowledge you need to approach a bulking, or muscle-building, phase successfully, this article is going to address the following questions:
To make the most of a bulking phase, I recommend you start with this article and run a Kickstart Phase.
When you’re done, come back to this bulking guide and keep reading.
It’s time to put some muscle on.
What does “bulking” mean?
“Bulking” is a common fitness-related term, used to describe a period of time during which you follow a structured hypertrophy-oriented training program in order to add muscle mass, and eat in a caloric surplus in order to increase your bodyweight.
You might have come across the phrase “lean bulk”, which implies that you can eat in a caloric surplus and gain weight only in the form of muscle, with no body fat accumulation. Unfortunately, this isn’t true unless you’re taking performance-enhancing drugs (steroids).
Although it can be a mental challenge to accept some body fat gain in your quest to add muscle, the good news is that losing fat is a relatively quicker process than building muscle. For instance, it’s possible to lose 0.5 to 1 lb of fat in a week in many cases, whereas building the same amount of muscle might take one or two months, if not longer.
As a practical example, let’s say that you start bulking and put on 10 lbs in 10 months. At this point, you decide to go into a fat loss phase. Assuming 6 lbs is muscle and 4 is fat, by losing 0.5 to 1 lb per week, you’ll likely be able to lose the extra fat in only one to two months.
As a result, after about a year, you’ll have lost most of the body fat added during your bulking phase and you’ll have gained 6 lbs of extra muscle, which is going to make a dramatic difference to your physique.
Therefore, a bulking phase can be a great investment in the context of a long-term plan with the goal of improving your appearance.
Who is it for?
Bulking is for you if you want to add a serious amount of muscle mass to your frame and you’re willing to commit to the following:
On the other hand, bulking may not be for you right now if:
If you choose not to bulk, does that mean you can’t build any muscle at all? No.
Let’s get this straight: you don’t have to bulk.
You don’t have to eat in a caloric surplus and gain weight. You can choose to train hard and eat at maintenance calories, and you will put on muscle.
However, don’t expect it to happen at the same pace.
As explained, building muscle takes a long time, even when you’re creating the best conditions for this to occur, which include consistent training, good sleep and stress management, and a caloric surplus.
When the conditions are less optimal, it can still happen, but not at the same speed. The results you could achieve in the hypothetical year described in the previous section, are likely to take several more years in a less optimal scenario.
If your reaction after reading this section is: “Hell, yeah! I was born for the bulking life!” Welcome to the club.
What are the priorities in a bulking phase?
Training provides your body with the required stimulus for muscle growth.
Whilst eating in a caloric surplus is necessary to gain weight, all of this extra weight would be fat if you didn’t train.
Therefore, your top priority is going to be consistency with a well-structured training program.
Nonetheless, nutrition is a close second: food fuels training performance as well as the recovery process, which is when muscle growth takes place.
Nutrition therefore affects training in the following ways:
Finally, sleep and stress management are the two remaining components of the recovery process.
Sleep plays an important role in a bulking phase because sleep deprivation has been associated with muscle mass loss in rats, older adults, and university students.
Although the mechanisms behind this association don’t seem to be clear just yet, sleeping badly, or not sleeping enough, can negatively impact your results for one intuitive reason: often, after a night of extremely poor quality sleep, your training performance will be worse than average. If this happens over and over again, even though you may not lose muscle, you may not put on very much, either.
According to research, the “optimal sleep duration for good health” appears to be seven to nine hours per night on average.
Moreover, you need to be careful to manage your stress in order to prevent your allostatic load (defined as “the cumulative burden of chronic stress and life events”, which includes the stress generated by training itself) from reaching a critical point.
This critical point is called allostatic overload, a state of excessive stress in which the body struggles to sustain its normal functions. Muscle growth isn’t a “normal function” – or else we’d all be getting gains simply by existing – therefore this can be impacted to an even larger extent.
To manage allostatic load appropriately during a bulking phase, consider the following points:
How do you structure training?
I can’t give you “the best muscle-building program” because it’s different for every person. To truly optimise this aspect of your bulking phase, I recommend hiring a coach.
What I can give you is a list of mistakes to avoid:
Training more often doesn’t necessarily mean making more progress. If you can’t recover from your sessions, you won’t be able to achieve muscle growth.
On the other hand, if your training frequency is too low, you won’t be able to accumulate enough volume to stimulate growth.
Three to six sessions per week, is the sweet spot for most people, at least in my experience.
Some train twice per day, three to six days per week, with great success, but this should be considered an advanced approach, not one that’s likely appropriate for your first ever bulking phase.
The primary factor causing muscle growth seems to be mechanical tension. Some may think that this mechanical tension is the weight you lift, but it’s actually the amount of tension produced and sensed by each fibre within a muscle.
Mechanical tension is influenced by the weight lifted, but both heavier weights lifted for a smaller number of reps and lighter weights lifted for a higher number of reps can cause muscle growth. (You can read more about the subject of load in this article.)
Therefore, the weight that you put on the bar, doesn’t need to be a priority.
On the other hand, when you execute an exercise properly, you’ll be targeting the muscles that you intend to grow, and you’ll be able to force each fibre within those muscles to produce more mechanical tension.
When you have poor form, you won’t have the same level of control over your body, so you’re going to move the weight with any muscle available. As a result, the fibres within your target muscle may have to produce less tension because they’re “sharing” the challenge with others.
Improper form thus results in much more inefficient progress.
When you start doing a new exercise, you need to achieve so-called neuromuscular adaptations in order to learn that particular movement pattern. Until then, your muscle fibres won’t be able to produce as much mechanical tension as they would if you were proficient with the lift.
Moreover, more practice will improve your form, so over time you’ll be able to get more out of the same exercises simply because you’re better at them.
Lastly, repeating the same exercises for longer than a few weeks, enables you to analyse your performance and track progress. You wouldn’t be able to do the same thing if you were doing barbell squats for three weeks and then swapping them out for leg presses for three weeks, for instance, because you can’t compare reps and load on two entirely different lifts.
Therefore, the idea that you need to “keep your muscles guessing” by changing your program often, is not only a myth, but it could even be detrimental to muscle growth.
When designing my clients’ programs and my own, I like to keep at least the compound lifts the same for three to six months, whilst allowing more variation for isolation lifts, where the skill requirement is lower.
Every body is unique, so there are no “best exercises” that will work for everyone.
Claims such as “squats are king” or “deadlifts are a must”, don’t take into account an individual’s response to that exercise, or their physical structure.
For example, if squats make you sore for seven days in a row, or you don’t feel them in your quads or glutes – depending on which muscle group you’re trying to target – then they may not be “king” of anything for you.
In most sports, you have to practise specific exercises because they’re required by the rules. For example, powerlifters must train the squat, bench, and deadlift, because that’s what they’ll be judged on during a meet.
However, muscles can only detect mechanical tension, not specific exercises, therefore you can have a lot more variety in a hypertrophy-oriented program than in a strength-oriented one.
When selecting your lifts, you can use the following criteria:
How do you structure your diet?
In this section, I’m going to discuss meal structure and food quality, but not so much calories and macros. For detailed instructions on how to set up your caloric surplus and your macro targets, head over here and here.
On the other hand, this section is going to answer this question: assuming that protein and a caloric surplus are the main nutritional priorities in a bulking phase, how do you hit your calorie and macro targets in each meal in a way that promotes muscle growth?
Let’s start with meal frequency, or how many meals you should eat in a day.
Whilst you may have heard that eating more meals “stokes your metabolic fire” by increasing the thermic effect of food, this doesn’t seem to pan out in research.
The thermic effect of food (TEF) refers to the amount of calories the body expends in order to digest and absorb the food you eat. TEF makes up about 10% of your total daily caloric expenditure.
Each macronutrient (carbs, protein, and fat) requires a different amount of energy to digest and absorb. Of note, protein seems to require the most amount of energy (up to 20 to 30%).
Some believe that eating more frequently will increase your total daily TEF and thus help you burn more calories. However, when comparing the difference in TEF between one and two meals; two and three; and two and seven, there didn’t seem to be a meaningful difference.
With this infographic covering a number of studies on fat loss, Menno Henselman demonstrated that a higher meal frequency doesn’t appear to generate more fat loss.
Although your goal is muscle growth, not fat loss, considering this research can be helpful to understand that, if meal frequency doesn’t seem to affect TEF, then it’s unlikely that eating fewer meals will help you gain more weight, or vice versa.
Instead, it’d be more beneficial to view meal frequency in this context: what’s the best way to distribute your protein throughout the day?
A popular myth regarding protein and meal frequency suggests that the body can’t absorb and utilise more than 30 gr of protein in a single meal, so any excess would be “wasted”. However, this one-size-fits-all rule doesn’t cover the whole picture.
A paper from 2018 reviewed the existing literature on this topic and came to the following conclusions:
In practical terms, 0.4 gr of protein per kilogram per meal corresponds to 20 to 40 gr of protein for people of average weight.
Therefore, in order to optimise muscle growth, consider eating a minimum of four meals, each containing 0.4 gr of protein per kilogram (or 20 to 40 gr).
A second, potentially meaningful aspect of your diet structure is nutrient timing, or the time of day of each meal and of individual nutrients.
If you’re hitting your daily calorie and macro targets, and eating at least four servings of protein per day, nutrient timing isn’t going to make or break the results of your bulking phase. Nevertheless, it’s worth considering the time at which you’re eating in relation to training performance.
According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), nutrient timing can benefit recovery, muscle protein synthesis, and mood after high-volume or intense exercise.
Since high-volume training is the type typically performed to increase muscle mass, nutrient timing can be a contributing factor to a productive bulking phase.
In particular, the ISSN recommends the following:
My preferred method of applying these guidelines in my own daily life and my clients’ includes:
For more detailed guidance on peri-workout nutrition, you can read this article.
When you add these meals and snacks up, the total should correspond to your daily targets for calories, protein, carbs, and fats.
The final, but by no means least important, factor is food quality, or the food sources you’re choosing in order to hit your calorie and macro targets.
You could follow the If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM) approach and eat anything you want as long as it’s within these targets.
However, a less nutritious diet is going to impact performance and health in a completely different way than a more balanced one.
This is my preferred approach to food choices:
Thanks for reading. May you make the best gains.
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An online fitness coach who likes bodybuilding, superheroes, and bread.
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