The societal notion that dumbbells and strength-training machines should be exclusively reserved for gym enthusiasts is as obsolete and buried as the misconception that rest days are for the feeble. However, even though the weight room has become a sweaty refuge for everyone, the concept of bulking up and achieving a muscular physique is still regarded as a pursuit for wannabe bodybuilders like Arnold Schwarzenegger and bikini competitors with well-defined physiques.
In actuality, bulking can be a beneficial strategy in your fitness journey, regardless of whether you’re a newcomer to the gym or have reached a plateau with your personal records (PRs). Here’s what you need to understand about bulking, including how to increase muscle mass in a healthy manner, along with diet suggestions and workout recommendations that will contribute to substantial gains in the muscle department.
To put it simply, bulking involves increasing body weight and muscle mass by elevating your caloric intake and engaging in frequent strength training over a specified period, as stated by Ryan Andrews, R.D., C.S.C.S., a NASM-certified personal trainer, exercise physiologist, and principal nutritionist for Precision Nutrition.
The reasons behind a person’s desire to bulk up may vary, but it’s common to adopt this practice in order to reach a specific weight for sports such as CrossFit, weightlifting, or bodybuilding, or, as some individuals may aspire, to develop a well-rounded derriere, according to Jaclyn Sklaver, C.N.S., C.D.N., L.D.N., the founder of Athleats Nutrition. “If you aspire to build a voluptuous posterior, you must consume an adequate amount of food—you must nourish it. And a shapely butt is not solely attained through banded workouts,” she explains.
How Bulking Works
In order to comprehend the principles of bulking up, it is essential to understand the science behind muscle growth. Here’s what you should know: Muscle growth is a demanding process for your body, and calories provide the vital energy to facilitate this process. To develop muscle, you need to be in an anabolic state, meaning your body has enough fuel and energy to construct and repair tissues, including muscle. If you fail to maintain a caloric surplus, you run the risk of entering a catabolic state (which occurs when your body breaks down fat and muscle) and gluconeogenesis (which happens when your body utilizes non-carbohydrate sources like muscle protein for fuel), as Sklaver explains. “The more calories you consume, the more fuel you possess and the lower the possibility of entering a catabolic state,” she emphasizes.
Plus, when you’re at a caloric shortage (consuming fewer calories than you’re burning), you can put pressure on the body, which can prompt the body to produce cortisol — a catabolic hormone that decreases testosterone and can be a factor in the breakdown of muscle protein, adds Sklaver. When you consume more calories, you’re also consuming more nutrients that play a crucial role in the muscle-building process, says Andrews. (Though it is possible to grow muscle without being at a caloric surplus, although it usually only happens in beginner lifters because the stimulus of lifting is new to their body and will result in a much slower rate of muscle growth, notes Sklaver.)
In order to transform those additional calories into lasting muscle mass, you need to be engaging in strength training. FYI, when you strength train, you actually cause damage to your muscles; as a result, your body initiates the repair and growth process of muscle known as muscle protein synthesis (MPS), says Skalver. During this metabolic process, the hormones testosterone and insulin-like growth factor-1 (aka IGF-1 , a hormone that promotes bone and tissue growth and development) instruct satellite cells (precursors to skeletal muscle cells) to travel to the damaged muscle and commence rebuilding it with protein. “Without strength training, you will find it challenging to build or maintain muscle mass,” she says. (FYI, you can build muscle with bodyweight exercises, too, it just requires some additional effort and careful training.)
How Long It Takes to Bulk Up
Just like the reasons for bulking, the duration of a bulk varies depending on the individual. If prior to this endeavor, you’ve never set foot into the weight room and are accustomed to consuming a moderate diet for your body, you might see results more rapidly than a professional because these changes are completely new stimuli on your body, explains Andrews. “Introducing strength training and consuming more nutrient- and calorie-dense food, the body can simply start to adapt, and you gain weight a little easier than someone who has been training intensively for a long period of time and their body has already made many of the necessary adjustments,” he says.
In general, though, a bulking period typically lasts approximately three months, which allows you to gradually gain weight (including muscle mass) and increase the amount of weight you lift at the gym, says Sklaver. In fact, a study published in the International Journal of Exercise Science demonstrated that performing three full-body strength training sessions a week for eight weeks resulted in just a two-pound increase in lean mass, an 11 percent increase in chest press strength, and a 21 percent increase in hack squat strength. That’s why it’s crucial to eat and train consistently in order to gain visible muscle and also to gradually progress to heavier weights, she explains.
How to Determine If You Should Try Bulking
What a Bulking Diet Might Look Like
Before you increase your calorie intake and go to the gym consistently, you should establish some foundational habits. If your diet lacks consistency and consists mainly of fast or processed food instead of quality protein, fiber, and a variety of fruits and vegetables, it is advisable to work on developing those healthy habits first, according to Andrews.
“Bulking is slightly different, and sometimes you have to ignore your body’s cues when it comes to eating, such as continuing to eat even when you feel full,” says Andrews. “If someone is not in a regulated and balanced state, it can lead to fluctuations and unpredictable changes in eating habits,” he adds.
If you have a history of disordered eating or are susceptible to it, Andrews strongly suggests working with a trusted healthcare professional to ensure safe and gradual weight gain during the bulking process.
What a Bulking Diet Might Look Like
The initial step in learning how to bulk up involves examining your nutrition. To achieve significant muscle gains, you need to consume more calories than you burn on a daily basis. Additionally, you should follow a strength training program to ensure that the extra energy is effectively converted into muscle, as explained by Sklaver. For women, this entails consuming an extra 250 to 500 calories per day during the bulking phase. However, the specific amount varies depending on individual metabolism. “Some women may consume 2,800 calories per day, while others may bulk at just 2,200. It varies, but being in a caloric surplus is essential,” she explains. (To determine your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) – the number of calories you burn daily based on your height, weight, age, and activity level – before embarking on a bulking phase, consider using an online calculator.)
To meet the new calorie goals, it is recommended to make gradual changes to your diet rather than making a complete overhaul. Andrews suggests that most people find it easier to focus on one aspect rather than completely altering their daily routine and lifestyle. The first step is to eat until you feel full at each meal. If you still feel like you could eat a little more after finishing your meal, go ahead and do so. For some individuals, this may be sufficient to start the bulking process.
If this approach does not yield the desired results, consider adding an extra serving to one of your meals or snacks. For example, if you are having a sweet potato for dinner, add another one to your plate. If you typically drink a protein shake after a workout, try increasing the quantity by four ounces. Then, assess your progress and determine if a more intensive approach is necessary, according to Andrews.
If you prefer a more structured approach, you can meticulously track your calorie and macronutrient intake to facilitate the bulking process.
- Employing these uncomplicated equations can aid you in comprehending your dietary prerequisites whilst increasing your muscle mass, as furnished by Sklaver (or you can utilize an Internet-based computing tool such as this particular resource or this alternative option):
- Calories: Body weight in pounds multiplied by 14 or 15
- Protein (g): Body weight in pounds multiplied by 1
- Carbohydrates (g): Body weight in pounds multiplied by 1.5-2.0
- Fats (g): The remaining calories
However, increasing your calorie intake can feel like a task (not to mention, it may feel unpleasant for you). With that in mind, consuming healthy fats such as nuts, coconut cream, grass-fed butter, and avocados is suggested by both Sklaver and Andrews. Why? Because fats contain twice as many calories per gram as protein and carbohydrates. Translation: You’ll consume more calories with less food filling your stomach.
“If someone consumes a very large raw kale salad with a variety of chopped raw vegetables, that’s a substantial amount of food and they can feel very full, but it provides very few calories and protein overall,” says Andrews. “Compare that to a bowl of trail mix that’s filled with nuts and dried fruits — something that’s more calorie-dense and protein-dense — that can be easier to consume for some people,” he explains. (Also focus on these other healthy but high-calorie foods.)
On the other hand, it’s not a free-for-all to consume all the processed and fried foods you desire. You still want to adhere to the fundamental principles of healthy eating — fulfilling your protein requirement, acquiring a plethora of micronutrients, and ensuring you’re obtaining enough essential fatty acids, says Sklaver. “You’re not transforming into a human garbage disposal — heart disease is still a concern. Cholesterol is still an issue if you’re bulking,” she warns. So when you decide which fats deserve a place on your plate, choose lean cuts of meat and plant-based fats, adds Sklaver. (
With all this eating, you’ll probably notice some changes in your digestive system, including feeling satiated more frequently and experiencing more bowel movements, says Andrews. Plus, you will likely have an easier time meeting your fiber requirement and obtaining key micronutrients you might have been lacking previously, adds Sklaver.
Supplements You Should Consider Adding to Your Bulking Diet
When you’re bulking, try to incorporate a protein supplement that contains a minimum of 25 grams of complete protein per serving — the amount necessary for your body to begin utilizing the protein to build and repair muscle — recommends Sklaver. (Remember that MPS process from the science lesson above? This is it in action.) If you’re using a plant-based protein supplement, you should also think about supplementing with leucine, she suggests.
Leucine is a necessary amino acid that initiates MPS and is present in lesser amounts in protein sources derived from plants when compared to those derived from animals, as per a research study in the publication Nutrients.
You shouldn’t reserve your protein shake solely for your post-workout routine, either. While bulking, you desire to have a generous amount of protein distributed throughout the day, says Sklaver. You could have a whey protein shake during breakfast, within 30 minutes of completing a workout, or before going to sleep to prevent catabolism while resting, a vital repair process for your body (and for building muscle) that necessitates protein and energy, recommends Sklaver.
However, if you forgot to pack your powder and are unable to prepare an on-the-go shake, don’t be too hard on yourself. “I’d prefer to see someone consuming evenly spaced meals throughout the day, every day, that are abundant in protein, rather than prioritizing a protein shake immediately before or after workouts,” says Andrews. And remember: Supplementing with protein is not obligatory, but instead a convenient and effortless method to reach your target, says Andrews. (See: Here’s How Much Protein You Should Consume Per Day)
Creatine can also aid in achieving your swole goals. The supplement can assist individuals in training harder, potentially facilitating greater muscle gain, and can transport water into muscle cells, which can contribute to weight gain, says Andrews. To obtain these benefits, consume 3 grams of creatine daily, says Sklaver.
Seeing a Nutritionist During a Bulk
Is it necessary to consult with a nutritionist when you’re bulking up? The concise and pleasant answer is unquestionably. Even though you can discover plenty of information about bulking and nutrition on the internet (hi — right here!), a specialist will provide you with personalized, accurate diet plans — and so much more. “They’re going to help you diversify your foods, hold you accountable each week, discuss challenges you may be experiencing, provide you with new recipes, and tailor them around your workout,” says Sklaver. “Some people simply engage in a bulk and think, ‘I’m just going to eat whatever I want to put weight on,’ and that’s just not the way you do it,” she adds.
What a Bulking Workout Routine Might Look Like
Sorry, you can’t simply consume more calorie-dense food and hope that you become buff AF — you need to be consistently working out and lifting heavy as well, says Sklaver. In this case, cardio works counterproductively towards your goals while you bulk, as the more calorie-burning cardio you engage in, the more food you’ll have to consume to compensate for it, she explains. (Note: Cardio might not be beneficial for bulking, but it is a vital aspect of maintaining a healthy heart.) While, yes, you can build muscle with bodyweight-only workouts, they are not the optimal approach to meeting your bulking objectives.
You’re not going to desire to bulk up and [solely] practice yoga. Consequently [those calories] can effortlessly transform into adipose tissue rather than muscular tissue,” states Sklaver.
The varieties of exercises you’ll perform each day depend on the amount of time you have available to engage in weightlifting. If you can only allocate three days per week in your schedule for training, it’s ideal to do a comprehensive workout every time to target each muscle more frequently — a crucial step in promoting muscle growth, according to Sklaver. If you plan on engaging in four or more workouts per week, it’s perfectly acceptable to divide your training sessions and focus on your legs, shoulders, core, back, and other areas separately — as long as you train each muscle group more than once per week. (For additional guidance, check out this complete guide to workouts for bodybuilding and guide to creating a workout plan for building muscle.)
And there’s no simpler way to achieve the desired outcomes than by adhering to a tailored, professionally crafted program. Sklaver recommends consulting with a trainer who possesses a background in strength and conditioning or exercise science — individuals who comprehend the scientific principles behind gaining muscle and strength training. “Simply going to the gym and working out is beneficial, but when you follow a plan [from a professional], that’s when you witness the magic,” she asserts.
The magic? Enhanced muscle strength, easier lifts, and new personal records, says Sklaver. Alongside these improvements in the gym, you might also observe changes in your physique. The number on the scale is likely to increase, and your pants may feel tighter around your quadriceps or other body parts due to increased muscle mass. However, the outcomes vary individually, and if you begin your bulking journey with a naturally lean physique, you may still remain on the leaner side at the end, she explains.
Tracking Progress During the Bulking Phase
When bulking, it’s crucial not to solely rely on the scale as the sole determinant of your progress, advises Sklaver. Nevertheless, if you aim for a specific weight, weighing yourself twice a month to assess your progress is a practice she does recommend. However, her preferred method is taking measurements: Measure your waist, chest, hips, thighs, and arms to obtain precise numerical values for your muscle growth. Additionally, to visually witness the changes in your entire body, take photos once or twice a month. When you compare them side by side, you’ll have a concrete representation of the improvements you’re making, she states.
In the gym, ensure that you record the amount of weight you lift for each exercise every time you train. This will aid in tracking your progress and, most importantly, indicate whether you are lifting heavier weights, adds Sklaver.
What to Do After Completing the Bulking Phase
Once you have achieved your goals — whether it’s a stronger posterior or a physique resembling Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson — it’s time to transition into a maintenance phase.
If you adopted Andrews’ strategy for increasing muscle mass and implemented minor modifications to your dietary habits, simply exclude those alterations from consideration, he states. Consume meals when experiencing hunger, cease when feeling satisfied, and avoid placing excessive amounts of food on your plate (referred to as intuitive eating).
If you focused on your calorie count and macronutrients, you’re going to want to decrease your calorie consumption to the amount necessary to maintain your current weight, says Sklaver. If you gained 10 pounds, your calorie requirements will be different from what they were prior to bulking, she explains. At this juncture, your nutrition expert or coach can assist you in determining what your new intake should be. When you lower your calorie intake, you can anticipate losing some of the weight you gained, and if you still remain the same weight, there may be an underlying issue with your thyroid, cortisol levels, or sex hormones, says Sklaver. (
However, if you are an elite athlete, physique model, or bodybuilder, there is another option you can pursue once you finish bulking: cutting. During this process, you will decrease your calorie consumption by 15 to 20 percent of your TDEE — although it depends on the specific individual, their lifestyle, goals, and metabolism, says Sklaver. However, engaging in a rapid or extreme cut runs the risk of muscle breakdown from gluconeogenesis, as well as elevated cortisol and potentially reduced testosterone levels, says Sklaver. “It’s a challenging process that can have negative consequences, both physically and mentally,” adds Andrews.
But if you are determined to pursue a cut, strive for a more gradual approach with the guidance of a trained health professional or dietitian, recommends Andrews. And if you don’t have a specific goal or deadline, consider transitioning to maintenance calories after bulking to reduce these risks, recommends Sklaver.