Once again, the much-anticipated season is upon us. I know what you’re thinking, “Already?”
I know. Me, too.
“But it feels like I just packed all my holiday decorations away for next year!”
Um, no. Not the holiday season. The bulking season.
‘Tis the season to switch gears from dieting to bulking.
Uh oh, that sounds suspiciously like gaining weight. On purpose. Who in their right mind would want to gain weight?
Bulking simply means gaining muscle, and yes, gaining weight in general. It’s an ideal avenue for those who have a hard time gaining weight no matter how hard they try (a.k.a hardgainers), those who would like to add some muscle mass to their physique, and also for people who are skinny fat and looking to even out their proportions.
If you fall into any of these categories, you’re in the right place. Even if you already have a decent base of muscle mass, follow along anyway. You might just find something here to make your fit life a little easier.
Why is now the bulking season?
The fall and winter months are the perfect time to focus on this particular fitness goal because we’re not running around in skimpy bikinis or short shorts. Now’s the time to let it all hang out, so to speak.
So, if you’ve been trying to gain a bit of muscle with little to no success, or you’re just starting out and want a point-by-point guide on how to bulk, settle in. There’s a ton of useful info coming your way.
A Bulking State of Mind
Let’s get ready to bulk, people. The first thing on the agenda is getting used to this idea of gaining weight. Believe me, it can take a while. I’ve been halfway through bulks before and found myself wondering what the hell I was doing.
It takes a lot to undo a lifetime of conditioned thinking. From a very young age it is drilled into us, whether subconsciously or consciously, that we should watch our weight.
So yes, it will be a mind-bender at first, but guess what? If you go about it the right way, much of the weight you gain will be muscle anyway.
But what about the stuff that’s not muscle?
Ah, the dreaded fat gain. Don’t worry. I won’t leave you hanging because this manual includes top-notch tips for losing the fat after a bulk.
Getting used to gaining weight can take a while, but when you get to the end of the bulk and lose some of the fat, you will see that everything you did wasn’t for nothing. Quite the opposite.
Heading into this endeavor, your new mantra needs to be: trust the process.
Okay, now that you’re mentally on board (don’t worry, you’ll get there), it’s time to put those fitted tops away and pull out the cozy, loose-fitting sweaters. Put away those skinny jeans and pull out the stretchy pants.
We’ll cover up in our cozy clothes for now, content to put in lots of hard work, commitment, and energy. And by the time we’re done–after we’ve shed our cocoons of angora and denim–we’re gonna have quads, hams, booties, and guns to die for!
The only way we’re gonna gain weight is by eating more.
I know, duh, right? But letting yourself eat all the foods you love after years of avoiding them can be tough at first.
It can be so tough that you believe you’re eating enough calories to gain weight, but you might be missing the mark altogether. This happens more often than you think.
I’ve been there, done that. I thought I was “eating all the foods,” but I still wasn’t gaining any weight.
Yeah, I’d allow myself to have amazing restaurant meals and indulge in my favorite desserts, eating with abandon, but I wasn’t accounting for the rest of the time in the day.
Sounds kinda strange, but I had to start tracking my calories to ensure I was eating enough in a day. When I started counting the calories in what I ate, I had solid proof I wasn’t eating enough.
Calculating Your Calorie Goal
In order to track your calories and keep your weight gain under control, you must have a calorie goal to aim for.
It might be tempting to think eating more will yield more muscle mass. You would think so, but that’s not how it works. The only thing you’ll succeed in doing is putting on more fat than is necessary.
A good rule of thumb is to set your calorie goal 250-500 calories (per day) over your maintenance cals. Your maintenance calories are simply the amount of calories at which you maintain your current weight.
Your maintenance calorie calculation is not foolproof. What it does is put you in the ballpark and gives you a starting point from which to adjust your calories should the need arise.
Setting your calories 500 above maintenance will result in a weight gain of one pound a week. And going with 250 results in a gain of 1/2 pound per week.
It’s best to err on the conservative side here. Start smaller (250 over maintenance), and gauge your weight gain.
Before the scale makes a true and meaningful change, you will see a gain consisting of nothing but water weight.
Don’t freak out. This gain can be anywhere from 3-8 pounds, and it will eventually even out. You actually want to see the initial rise on the scale because this indicates you are indeed in a calorie surplus.
If after a week of eating at your calculated calorie goal the scale doesn’t show an initial jump in water weight, then you know you’ve missed the mark. In this case, increase the calories slowly until you do start to see the numbers go up. Add 100 calories to your daily goal for a week, and check your weight again. Keep adjusting as needed.
On the flip side, if after your initial weight gain you continue to gain any more than a pound a week, then scale back a little on the calories. Remember, your maintenance calorie calculation is just a ballpark figure. It’s up to you to keep a close eye on how the numbers move on the scale.
Once you have a grasp on your true calorie goal, just continue to track your food in order to stay on course with your weight gain. Eventually, the weight gain will stall. When this happens, you will need to increase your calories again.
Weight fluctuations are not linear. It’s entirely possible you’ve picked the right amount of calories, but the weight change does not show up on the scale right away. Because of this, I approach dieting and bulking very conservatively. Inch those calorie numbers up and down, as opposed to making sweeping changes, and you’ll do fine.
| Recommended Reading | Counting Calories: How to Lose Weight or Gain Muscle Simply by Tracking Your Calories
What to Eat For Muscle Growth
There are no magic foods when it comes to putting on muscle mass. Instead, what you need to focus on are the amounts of each macronutrient you take in on a daily basis.
Macronutrients (macros) are the components that make up the different foods we eat. Of the three macronutrients–protein, carbohydrates, and fat–protein is the most important when it comes to building muscle mass.
If you want to build muscle, then the phrase “you are what you eat” could not be more true. Your muscles are made of protein, so you need to consume protein to maximize your muscle-building efforts.
Again, as with eating and gaining muscle, more protein does not equal more muscle mass. If you go over your calorie goals by too much, that protein will be stored as fat, just like anything else.
So how much protein is needed to build muscle? The answer is dependent upon your body weight. Simply multiply your weight by .8 (grams of protein), and you will get an adequate amount of protein needed daily for optimal muscle growth.
| Recommended Reading | Protein For Muscle Growth, Weight Loss, & Optimal Health
Fat is an essential macronutrient, much like protein. Without it, important physical processes could not take place, including vitamin absorption and hormone regulation.
The recommended amount of fat needed daily is .45g per pound of body weight. Again, simply multiply your body weight by .45 to calculate the minimum amount of fat you should consume daily.
While not necessary, carbohydrates sure make life physically easier. Carbs provide the glucose our brains and bodies thrive on.
Were we to omit carbs altogether protein would take up the slack, and through a process called glucogenesis, make glucose in the body. But not before a period of time filled with brain fog, headaches, and general physical exhaustion. If you’ve ever tried a ketogenic diet, you know what I’m talking about.
Since carbohydrates are not a necessary macronutrient, the amount you take in on a daily basis is not as important as the amount of protein and fat. (Though, I will say from personal experience, it’s a good idea to get at least 100g of carbs per day in order to bypass the dreaded brain fog and lethargy.)
When calculating your daily macro intake, account for your protein first, then your fat intake, and finally fill in your daily calories with any combination of the three macros.
Weight Gainers & Supplements
With so many supplements (supps) on the market, it can be very confusing figuring out which ones work and which ones don’t. Believe me, not all supps are mandatory to your fitness success, including bulking. Not to mention, many of them do nothing for you at all.
The supps most often tried while on a bulk are a protein supplement and/or a weight gainer.
Don’t be fooled by the name. Weight gainers are not a miraculous supplement guaranteed to give you mega gains. They are simply another form of calories.
There’s nothing wrong with using a weight gaining supplement, just be sure to include those calories in your daily calculations.
The same goes for protein supplements. They’re the same as chicken breast or steak, just in a different form. Protein supps are simply more convenient, making it easier to meet your daily calorie intake needs.
Workouts & Weight Lifting
For the purposes of bulking and gaining muscle mass we are going to focus on lifting weights during our workouts.
Your workouts are the catalyst for muscle growth. Lifting weights, and in the right way, will give your body the reason it needs to use those extra cals you’re ingesting for building muscle, not just fat storage.
How to Work Out For Maximum Muscle Growth
You can go to the gym and do some biceps curls, then hit the leg press machine, then maybe do some pushups. It’s a great feeling working up a sweat and giving your all during your workout. But you will get further with a clear and definite plan.
How you work out is super important. Wasting our time is not on the agenda here. Building muscle is very difficult, so you’ll want to stimulate your body in the most efficient way to ensure muscle growth.
Lift Heavy, Lift Often
Let’s just get this out of the way right off the bat. Those tiny dumbbells you’re able to lift for an infinite amount of reps aren’t going to cut it. Lifting too light doesn’t stimulate your muscles enough to spur growth.
I don’t care if you feel your muscles burning as a result of all those reps. I know it feels like a lot of hard work and you should see something from it, but that’s not gonna happen. All you’re succeeding in doing is fatiguing the muscles and increasing your endurance.
There is a lot of back and forth over whether lifting heavy is just for strength or if it benefits hypertrophy as well. In my personal experience, it’s great for both.
It wasn’t until I started really pushing the limits with the amount of weight I lifted that I started to see a difference in my physique.
If you can lift (or push) an amount of weight for 3-5 reps, but no more, then you’re officially lifting heavy.
Those high rep ranges aren’t obsolete, however. They come in handy when using isolation lifts (single muscle group), and they are excellent for really fatiguing, or burning out, the muscles. Fatiguing the muscles in this case is useful because when used in tandem with heavy lifting, this helps achieve metabolic stress that could very well aid muscle growth.
The amount of time you spend in the gym is an important factor in building muscle as well. Some people use what is called a body part split for their workouts, training just one muscle group per day. This usually means they are training each muscle group only once a week.
Your muscles have the ability to recover from a workout within 48 hours. When your muscles recover they grow. Therefore, it doesn’t make much sense to let all that time lapse between workouts. It’s best to train each muscle group, on average, two to three times a week to maximize your potential muscle gains.
On the flip side, it’s not the best idea to train every single day. Your muscles, and your body as a whole, need time to rest if you expect them to perform at peak condition every workout. A good rule of thumb is to take at least 2 rest days per week.
The frequency with which you train each muscle group and how many rest days you allot per week will all depend on what kind of training program you choose.
| Recommended Reading | Weight Training Programs: Rep Ranges & Goal Changes
Utilize Compound Lifts
Compound lifts are multi-joint exercises that involve more than one muscle group. Using compound lifts for bulking is beneficial for several reasons:
Compounds allow you to lift heavier. Without question, it is far easier to lift heavy when you are using exercises that involve multiple muscle groups.
They involve more than one muscle group, so they are more efficient at stimulating muscle growth.
Time–saving because you’re focusing, again, on more than one muscle group at a time.
| Recommended Reading | Compound Exercises: Gain More Muscle, Save More Time
Putting on muscle isn’t easy. You need to do everything possible to make your body want to do it. Because your body wants no part of it, believe me.
It takes a lot more energy to create and maintain muscle mass than it does other body tissues, including body fat. Your body is kinda lazy. It would rather maintain a level that requires the least amount of energy-use possible.
Ugh, so if you feel like you’re already lazy enough, don’t worry; you come by it honestly.
Now, in order to make any headway in this muscle gain game, we must up the ante and make our bodies listen to us. The way to do that?
ABC – Always Be Challenging. When your body gets used to the amount of weight you use for your workouts, it’s happy to just maintain the status quo.
This is where Progressive Overload comes in. Simply put, progressive overload involves constantly increasing weight and repetitions whenever possible. This keeps your body from becoming complacent, and keeps your progress from becoming stagnant.
Just as your body doesn’t want to deal with more work, neither does your brain. You must overcome the brain’s inclination to quit whenever something seems too hard.
It’s at the toughest moments in your training that the strength and muscle increases occur. Pushing past your comfort zone tells your body that it needs to do more in order to meet this new challenge. It is then forced to adapt.
Your body sees it as survival, and we see it as growing muscle mass.
Breaking Plateaus & Taking Names
Lifting heavy, using compound lifts, and including progressive overload into your bulking plan are essential to success, but sometimes that’s not enough. There will be times you’ll need to give your body a swift kick in the pants.
Unfortunately, training plateaus do happen. Just as you need to increase calories to gain weight, you’ll also need to shake it up a bit with your workouts in order to jolt your system into pushing past a training speed bump.
Should you hit a training or gaining plateau, there are a few essential extras you can use to get over the hump.
Supersets, drop sets, and pyramids are just a few examples of the extras you can include in your training.
These methods place even more stress on the muscles, perfect for those times when you’re unable to raise the amount of weight you lift, but need to keep the progressive overload going.
DO NOT fall back on the idea of muscle confusion to resolve your training plateaus. Muscle confusion will only serve to undo the hard work you’ve already put in.
The last thing you want to do is start changing your exercises in the middle of your bulk. If you do so, you will lose track of the progress you’ve made in the amount of weight you can lift. No two exercises are alike. There are too many variances to be able to track progress when you flit from exercise to exercise.
| Recommended Reading | Muscle Confusion: Myth or Miracle?
When you truly plateau, after trying everything else, you will need to reset your weights. All you have to do is reduce your working weights by 10%, and start over, working your way back up and eventually past your training plateau.
Rest to Progress
One of the most overlooked aspects of gaining muscle is rest. Like I said before, you can’t train every day and expect to see the gains you’re looking for.
It’s so easy to take on the “more is better” mindset, but as we’ve seen in other aspects of bulking, it can work against us.
Getting ample rest gives your body time to recover so that it can give 100% again for the next workout. And as I also said before, when your muscles rest, they grow.
Understandably, it’s common to feel like you’re not doing enough if you’re not physically doing anything. If you can’t shake that feeling, by all means, you can do something other than lifting.
Walking, doing a little yoga, or playing a less intense sport are all okay. Just make sure you don’t unnecessarily fatigue yourself.
A Word on Cardio
There’s no doubt cardio is good for your cardiovascular system and your overall health. However, keeping it to a minimum during a bulk will save you a lot of frustration.
Any sort of activity is going to burn calories. During a bulk, adding calories is vital to your success. When we do too much cardio, we are throwing away all those extra calories we worked to accumulate. Not to mention, fatiguing ourselves further.
I’m not advocating dumping it completely. If you want to continue with cardio through your bulk, I would highly recommend doing so.
Getting in 30 minutes of cardio a day, 3 days a week, in addition to your lifting schedule should be enough. As with any workout regimen, however, it is best to check with your doctor to ensure safety.
| Recommended Reading | Rest Days Are Essential to Fitness Success: 3 Reasons You Need Even More Time Off
There may be a natural inclination to want to veer from this plan I’ve laid out. Doing things like bulking for one month and dieting for the next month might seem like a good idea, but it will only cause you to spin your wheels.
I understand there is a bit of panic that sets in when the numbers on the scale go up. Trust the process.
Watching your body fluff up a bit can be daunting and feel so backward compared to our natural mindset. But do know that your muscles are safe and sound under that fluff.
Trust the process.
I know you can’t see the definition in your muscles, but they are growing and becoming stronger under there. After cutting the fluff, your muscles will emerge, I promise.
Trust the process.
Like I said, I’ve been there. I had to trust that great things were happening even though I couldn’t see the proof in the mirror. After I cut the fat, I had visual proof of the progress I’d made, and it was all worth it!
If this is your first bulk, it is best to stick with it for 10-12 months. Yes, you read that right. You need to continue to eat in a surplus, use progressive overload in your workouts, and worry about weight loss later.
Trimming the Fat
After your 10-12 month bulk, it’s time to “cut.” Depending on how you ate throughout your bulk, you’re going to have a different weight loss goal. I do not recommend cutting down to your original weight if you were skinny or underweight to begin with.
Because, if you did this right, you are naturally going to have new muscle mass to account for in your new body weight. Yay!! Believe me, it’s a great problem to have. 😉
If you went a little overboard (don’t worry, it happens), you might have a bit more work to do. But, I will say, trying to reach a particular number on the scale will not be fool proof.
You also will have added muscle mass to your frame and your body weight. It’s best to go by what you see in the mirror and measurements on the measuring tape.
The following articles will lead you in the right direction for successful fat loss after your bulk:
Undertaking a bulk takes a lot of hard work, patience, and time. If you want to significantly change your physique, you need to take the points I’ve made into consideration and use them to your advantage.
After your long bulk and subsequent cut, you will emerge victorious from your sweater and denim-lined cocoon. When you see the results you will be shocked. And at that moment, it will all have been worth it!
Bookmark this mandatory muscle manual for quick reference during your bulking journey, and feel free to ask questions in the comments–or drop me a line through my contact page.