Whether you are aware of it or not, there are three stages of training: cutting, maintenance, and bulking. You are always in one of these stages. If you go to the gym because you want to lose weight then you are cutting, if you are training just to stay healthy but don’t want to increase or decrease weight then you are in maintenance, and if you are looking to build muscle then you are bulking. In this article we will try to answer the question “what is bulking?”.
We will also give you practical advice on how to bulk properly, looking at diet, supplementation, and what training programs you should look to follow. By the end of this guide you should know all you need to and be able to build some serious mass!
What Is Bulking?
To be honest, there isn’t much room for confusion here. Bulking means building mass. If you’re in your mid to late 30s then you have probably experienced unconscious bulking! But we’re here to talk about consciously planned bulking. There are two ways to achieve this: Clean or dirty. Sadly, these are the universally accepted terms, nothing we can do about that.
- Clean bulks are (in our opinion) the most sensible way to build muscle mass. They require patience, consistency, and hard work. But they will lead to superior muscle gain and minimal fat accumulation. In this article we will be focusing on how to follow a clean bulk properly. This involves calorie counting, specific training, progress reports, etc.
- Dirty bulk involve eating lots and lots of food while lifting heavy weights. They are simple to follow, lead to great muscle gains, but you will gain a lot of body fat during this process. They are also not amazingly scientific. They can’t be planned properly, and results are not guaranteed. There are certain situations where only a dirty bulk will do though. If you have to build a LOT of muscle in a relatively short period of time then dirty bulks are necessary, because hitting massive calorie targets with “clean” foods isn’t realistic.
Just remember when you choose which bulk to do that most of the “dirty” bulks are performed by bodybuilders who are taking performance enhancing drugs. If your testosterone levels are high enough your metabolism will be able to handle junk food blowouts in a way that a non-assisted lifter would not.
Preparing For A Bulk
If you want to bulk properly then you really need to prepare for it beforehand. This is because you need an accurate idea of what you looked like pre-bulk so that you can gauge progress as you bulk. Also, if you are planning on increasing your calories to create a surplus you are going to need to know what your current calorie intake is.
- Step One: Take a “before” photo, don’t try and make yourself look artificially bigger or better, but don’t slump either. Take a topless photo of yourself standing upright and then take a second photo while you stand to the side. You can use these photos as a visual baseline, and it will really help you see your progress over the coming months.
- Step Two: Use tailor’s tape to measure the circumference of your thighs (measure 8 inches up from the knees to ensure you measure the same spot each time), your upper arms, hips, abdomen (belly button), and chest. These measurements, like the photo will give you a great baseline measurement so that you can gauge progress.
- Step Three: Use an online calculator to determine what your maintenance calorie targets are, then work out what calorie intake you will need to create a surplus. For a clean bulk you’ll want a gradual increase in calories over a long period of time. This will allow you to build muscle without gaining too much excess body fat – some added body fat is inevitable, but provided you are smart with your calories it can be minimal.
- Step Four: Purchase some recipe books. We are absolutely sick of people going on a bulk and cooking the same boring food week in, week out, until they go crazy and close down a KFC! Cooking is easy, it saves you money, and gives you a greater appreciation of the value of a calorie. If you know how to make good food yourself, then Pizza Hut becomes less of a temptation.
- Step Five: Plan out your food shops for the next two weeks. After a lot of experimentation, bi-weekly shopping seems to provide the best results. You can plan out enough meals for two weeks in about 10-15 minutes. You can then buy meat and veg for multiple meals. You’ll save money overall, and a full fridge and freezer will help you avoid 1) temptation and 2) under-eating when your cupboards are bare!
- Step Six: Purchase the supplements that you will need, but don’t go crazy! Later on, in this article we will go over the five best supplements for bulking, but you don’t even need to buy all five. Spending half your paycheck on supplements each month doesn’t make financial sense and won’t build you muscle any quicker than usual.
- Step Seven: Create a training program that lasts at least 12 weeks, and if you can, then try and tie it to your nutritional program. You can use the training program that we are providing at the end of the article, or you can create your own.
Perfecting Your Bulking Diet
One frustrating thing about bulking is that it can take a few weeks to get your calorie intake right. Of course, if you are following a dirty bulk then this is not such an issue – just eat as much food as you like and worry about excess body fat at the end. But if you have never tracked your calories before you may actually find your new calorie target is below your previous intake! Some people have even noticed a slight drop in weight after they started a bulking program. Hardly ideal!
That is where constant measurements and adjustments can help you. But firstly, you need to pay attention to your body. If you are looking to build muscle and gain some weight, then you are hardly going to be eating less than you were previously. However, psychologically, tracking your calories can lead to you making more sensible food choices.
If you are eating more high-fiber foods for example, you may feel fuller between meals, which can lead to you eating less during the day. To avoid this, you really need to stick to calorie tracking. This is actually where following a clean bulk can be advantageous, because you are only increasing your calories gradually.
FYI the following measurements will be in metric, sadly it’s just easier to do calorie tracking etc using the scientific measurements.
Let’s say that you weigh 60kg and are 5 foot 10 (170cm). You exercise for 1 hour each day, spend 2 hours walking about (on average) and sleep 8 hours. According to Health Calc (a really useful calorie estimation tool)  you would burn 2,537 calories per day. To create a calorie surplus, you could either reduce your activity (not a productive idea) or consume over 2,537 calories per day.
Even a calorie intake of 2,600 could lead to weight accumulation, but a surplus this small would be pointless. Partly because the rough estimations used, and partly because it would take 10 years to build muscle! To build muscle you’d want a calorie surplus of over 200 calories per day. Over time this would increase to 500 calories per day, but initially we start small.
So, week 1 you would create a 200 calorie per day surplus, this would work out at an overall weekly surplus of 1400 calories. Not bad, but you’re hardly going to notice it. Week 2 you would increase this to a 300 calorie per day surplus, or 2,100 weekly. Week 3 you increase it further to 400 calories per day or 2,800 per week. During week 4 you will increase the surplus to 500 calories per day or 3,500 calories for the week. This first month you will have consumed a surplus of 9,800 calories.
At this point you should have measured yourself four times, weighed yourself four times, and taken four progress photos. Now it is up to your judgement. Has you weight changed? If so, by how much? What about body fat? Is it starting to become more noticeable?
What you need to do is assess whether your current calorie intake has led to no changes, ideal changes, or too much change. Of course, four weeks isn’t that long a time period. But if your weight is still basically the same as when you started you should probably stick with the 500 calorie per day surplus and see how the next four weeks play out.
If your weight has increased yet body fat has stayed around the same, then what you are doing has clearly worked. You can either stick with the 500-calorie surplus, or you can average out the surplus from the previous month and use that. So, 200 calories for week one, 300 for week two, 400 for week three and 500 for week four would average out at 350 calories per day. Maybe round that up to 400 calories and see how that goes for the next month.
If your measurements indicate that you have gained too much weight, then you probably want to slow down a bit (depending on your goals of course). You can either increase your training/daily walking or you can reduce the calorie surplus to a more manageable number.
All of these options are available to you, and that is what makes clean bulking so effective. What you want to avoid though is too much tinkering. There is a reason why we said to wait four weeks, in fact, you could do this every six weeks. Your weight fluctuates several times during the day, and also during the week. Women can be affected by the menstrual cycle, and even men can be affected by hormonal changes during the month.
Giving yourself four to six weeks between calorie changes will give you time to see trends and it will also prevent you from ruining momentum with massive shifts in strategy. Remember, this is all about patience.
Now that you have a good idea about calorie strategy, we thought we would briefly cover macro targets. Why briefly? Because in our opinion, too much focus is spent on ideal macro targets when they’re not that important for bulking. Yes, you want protein to be high, but fat and carbohydrates can be whichever ratio you fancy.
Of course, there will be many of you reading this who are probably shouting “Just give us some ratios” at the screen. If that is you then rest assured, we’ll do that. Our macro targets are based on the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition article by Helms, Aragon, & Fitschen (2014) .
In it they identify very broad targets based on the available scientific literature. They claim that between 2.3 and 3.1 grams of protein per kilogram of lean body weight is ideal. Before you immediately jump on the scales, we should point out that your lean body weight differs from your actual body weight.
To find your lean body weight you need to estimate your body fat percentage. There are many ways to do this, skinfold calipers, body fat machines, but to be honest one of the most accurate ways is to look at a photograph of yourself and compare it to photographic examples of body fat percentages! Anyway, you only need a rough idea. Let’s say that you weigh 60kg and you have a body fat percentage of 15%. That means that your lean body weight is 85% of your total bodyweight, or 51kg to be precise. Therefore, if you have 3g of protein per kg of lean body weight you would have 153g of protein per day.
Fat should be around 25% or between 20 and 30%, and the rest of your calories should come from carbohydrates. This offers the best ratio split, but as you can see, there is a lot of wiggle room. Which is why we say, pick macros that suit your lifestyle, keep protein high, and stick to your calorie targets.
The Best Supplements For Bulking
A lot of fitness professionals advise against supplements, pointing out that you can get all that you need from diet alone. This is an understandable stance to take, and too much focus is often placed on supplements. However, if you are bulking then there are certainly some supplements that you should consider. In this section we will take a brief look at five supplements that may help you while you bulk.
- High calorie protein shakes – Regular protein shakes are a fantastic supplement choice, they are cheap, high in protein, and can help you build muscle. But if you are looking to bulk then you may want to take a look at mass builder protein shakes. These are protein powders that are also high in fast-digesting carbohydrates. They are cheap per serving and can contain as much as 500 calories per serving! Think about that, if you need a calorie surplus of 500 calories all you would have to do is add one serving of mass gainer protein to your current diet. This will save you money and effort while delivering lots of protein.
- Creatine – To be honest, everyone should be supplementing with creatine monohydrate. It is inexpensive and has so many benefits. Creatine can increase power, endurance, strength, and it can even improve cognition. Find a nice inexpensive creatine powder and start taking daily. You’ll be amazed at the results!
- Caffeine – Although caffeine is often seen as a fat-burning supplement, it is most effective as a performance enhancer. Caffeine works by stimulating adrenaline as well as lowering the body’s perception of pain. Allowing you to train harder and for longer, it can also help you if you are fatigued or sleep deprived. A seriously good supplement.
- Beta-Alanine – A common pre-workout ingredient, Beta-Alanine is a great supplement for increasing muscular endurance and reducing fatigue. Also, it doesn’t actually need to be taken pre-workout as (like creatine) it is not timing-dependent. If you want to lift more weight and for longer then find yourself some Beta-Alanine.
- Beet Root Juice – The final supplement on this list is perhaps the least studied and is a bit of a gamble on our part. Beet Root Juice has not been studied much until recently, but the evidence that it can improve power, endurance, and strength seems to be building. This is because Beet Root Juice is high in nitrates, which can lower the oxygen cost of intense exercise, allowing you to train longer .
Our Top 10 Tips For Building Muscle During A Bulk
Before we give you the bulking training program, we thought that it would be a good idea to identify ten tips that can help you get the most out of training.
Tip #1 Use A Full Range Of Motion
The word “bulking” tends to make men (yes, this is mostly a male thing) think about lifting the heaviest weights possible, and it is undeniable that training will prioritize this at some point. However, focusing on lifting as much weight as possible can lead to guys using too much weight which can lead to a huge drop in form. This can increase the risk of injury, makes you look stupid, and will actually slow your progress!
Always use a challenging weight, but please ensure that you can perform the full range of motion. A bench press where the bar touches your chest on the way down. A barbells squat where your legs pass parallel, leg extensions where you fully extend your leg. Training like this will recruit more muscle fibers and lead to better results.
Tip #2 Concentrate On Time Under Tension
Like range of motion, time under tension is one of the first casualties of lifting too much weight. Think of a pro bodybuilder performing the perfect bicep curl. You can picture it in your head, a slow curl of the dumbbell up to shoulder height, a squeeze of the biceps, and then a slow and steady lowering of the weight.
Now try and picture your form the last time you used a dumbbell that was too heavy. A fast curl which uses your upper body momentum to swing the weight up, and then a fast drop back down afterwards. Both movements are technically bicep curls, but one focuses on placing the biceps muscle under as much tension as possible for as long as possible, while the other is focused on bringing the weight up and down as fast as possible. Which do you think is going to recruit the most muscle fibers?
Tip #3 Use Progressive Overload
After the last two points you may be under the impression that increasing weight is a bad idea. On the contrary, it is vital for muscle growth. However, you need to go about it the right way. Progressive overload is continually trying to increase the weight lifted or the reps performed so that your muscles are exposed to a new challenge.
Provided that you focus on time under tension as well as using a full range of motion, you can constantly try to outdo your previous performance. Failing to do so will leave you stuck in mediocre-ville.
Tip #4 Prioritize Compound Movements
Compound movements are “big” exercises that involve several different muscle groups, as opposed to isolation movements that only use one muscle group. Examples of compound movements are; deadlifts, squats, bench presses, overhead presses, bent over rows, pull ups. You get the idea.
Now, there is room in any program for isolation work. However, if you want to see big changes then you’ll want to make compound movements the focus of each session. Compound movements are efficient, working several muscles in the time it would take an isolation movement to work just one. They lead to greater hormonal responses, and they activate more muscle fibers.
Tip #5 Rest Properly
99% of gym goers don’t time their rest periods. This is (in our opinion) a mistake. Studies have shown that three minutes rest is ideal for strength gains, 90 seconds is ideal for hypertrophy, and 45 seconds is ideal for muscular endurance. You should stick to these times, in this case 3 minutes between sets. This will allow you to recover properly without losing intensity. Use a stopwatch or follow the gym clock to ensure that you aren’t resting too much, or as is more often the case, resting too little.
Tip #6 Focus On Recovery
You can have the perfect gym program as well as the perfect diet, but if your recovery isn’t up to scratch then your results will never be impressive. Ensure that you take rest days when they are scheduled, make sure that you are eating enough protein, and most importantly of all, make sure that you are getting enough sleep each night. Eight hours or more if possible.
Tip #7 Be Realistic When Setting Goals
Motivation is a fickle thing, one week you may be chomping at the bit to get in that gym. The next you can’t even be bothered to leave the couch. There are many causes of motivation loss, but one of them is unrealistic expectations. If you’re expecting to double your bicep size in six weeks then you’re going to be disappointed. Set challenging goals, but make sure that they are also possible.
Tip #8 Find A Way To Be Consistent
This is tied to tip #7, where we talked about setting realistic goals. Consistency is vital if you want to build muscle. It is the cornerstone of your nutrition as well as training. Set unrealistic goals and you will struggle to be consistent. Setting goals that are achievable and finding ways to be consistent will set you up to make some serious gains.
Tip #9 Make Friends In The Gym
There are lots of things that you can do on your own but performing a personal best on the bench press is not one of them. You need someone who you trust to spot you and ensure that you don’t get stuck under the bar. Making eye contact with the regulars and saying hi should be enough to get you in everyone’s good books. This will allow you to push yourself further while staying safe.
Tip #10 Don’t Over-Complicate Your Program
This final point is often overlooked. There are so many training theories and discussions surrounding training that many people get bogged down trying to create the perfect training program. This is not necessary.
Provided your program utilizes progressive overload (lifting more or lifting heavier each week) and provided you use perfect form your training program will work. Picking the right exercises and rep ranges can help, but for 90% of the population any program filled with compound movements will yield great results. Keep it simple.